Feeling the Fear of Difference: Celebrating “A Wrinkle in Time”




JONATHAN ALEXANDER: I have been ridiculously excited about the release of Disney’s film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which is due out March 9. I say “ridiculously” because I’m a 50-year-old white man whose passion for L’Engle’s work strikes some of my colleagues and friends as … odd. But ever since I started reading L’Engle in earnest about 10 years ago (I know, I know: I’m a late bloomer), I have become a staunch supporter of her many novels, several of which are practically forgotten but deserve contemporary readers, such as A House Like a Lotus (1984) and one of her extraordinary novels for adults, A Severed Wasp (1982).

A Wrinkle in Time, published in 1962, has been a perennial favorite for many readers, and my hope is that the Disney adaptation — though almost certain to botch the job in some way for some readers, including me — will introduce a new generation to L’Engle’s work. In many ways, the introduction should be a relatively soft sell. Although much older than the flurry of YA books jostling each other for shelf space and attention today, the novel has many of the hallmarks that make such fiction popular among adolescents (and late-blooming adults): oddball characters who face tremendous trials and great battles — all, at least in part, to reunite a father with his family — as well as fantasy aplenty. Our band of intrepid heroes also meets strange and alien characters, allying with some of them to battle IT, a great darkness engulfing planets and their populations in terrifying conformity. The narrative thus combines fantastic action and adventure with familial drama, a winning combo in many contemporary YA books.

The heroine is also eminently fetching. The story revolves around Meg Murry, something of an outsider who doesn’t quite fit in at school. She’s an average student, one who periodically gets into trouble for talking back to authority, but she’s also clearly smart and capable, if self-doubting. Indeed, L’Engle has written Meg to be maximally appealing to adolescents: she’s full of self-criticism, awkward at times, even a bit whiny. She’s not Katniss Everdeen, who is to my taste too oddly confident and all-too-eager to wield weaponry. But Meg has her talents and is immensely likable precisely because she is so lacking in confidence. A Wrinkle in Time is as much a story about this young woman coming to trust herself as it is about saving the universe.

L’Engle is also superb at surrounding her heroine with a cast of delightfully idiosyncratic characters. Like Meg, her family is a bit oddball, with quirky scientist parents working on travel through space and time; an exceedingly strange younger brother, Charles Wallace, who is preternaturally smart and insightful; and a potential love interest, the gangly Calvin, a likable jock who feels misunderstood and is unwilling to show others his hidden depths. A set of boy twins rounds out the family (though we don’t see much of them in this particular book; check out Many Waters [1986] for their adventures), and, of course, who can forget the enigmatic trio, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit, the children’s interstellar guides as they seek to save their father — and possibly the universe — from the evil known as IT. 

What makes A Wrinkle in Time still so compelling over 50 years after its initial publication is that the narrative isn’t just about Meg and the others’ struggles against IT; it’s also — and more profoundly — about the struggle against the darkness inside. L’Engle’s work almost always places its adventures within a larger context of being true to oneself while also being open to others. Meg’s great fear is the fear of change, but also the fear of difference — itself one powerful manifestation of the fear of change, of the tendency of everything to evolve, mutate, and become different. The missing father is just one harbinger of eventual transformation: children move on and leave their parents, who eventually pass on themselves. In one way, A Wrinkle in Time recounts Meg’s rehearsal for that eventual departure — her own from her parents and her parents from this world. And she has to learn to come to terms with such change.

But the novel is also about the fear of others who are different, which is a theme that’s perhaps not all that surprising given the time in which the book was written. Coming out of the push toward “normalcy” in the 1950s United States, L’Engle’s novel seems more indebted to a Beat sensibility than to Leave It to Beaver. She offers us a family drama that pits her oddball characters against a force that conquers worlds by offering security at the price of conformity. When Meg, Charles, and Calvin arrive on the planet Camazotz, where they believe Mr. Murry is being held prisoner, they encounter a suburban landscape full of identical houses, with nearly identical children bouncing the same balls at the exact same time. On cue, mothers call their lookalike children inside for dinner, and doors slam in unison. Everything is clean, neat, orderly, and safe — but at a cost. Deviation is severely punished: Meg and the others arrive inside a large building, tracking down IT, and stumble across a boy in a glass cage learning to bounce his ball in tandem with others and screaming in pain when he fails. Camazotz is a terrifying world, and a stark critique of the suburban conformity that horrified L’Engle.

But such critiques seem easy, even to L’Engle, who raises the stakes when the heroes finally find Mr. Murry and all is still not well. Meg is so eager to believe that locating her missing father will make everything better again that she’s devastated to discover he doesn’t know how to get his family back home safely — he’s flawed and can’t make everything right. Instead, Meg will have to rely on herself, conquering her own fear of difference and change to help herself and her family. In some of the book’s most touching scenes, Meg has to learn to trust the beasts of the new planet, despite how frighteningly different they are. Meg’s primary battle is all internal: can she trust radical difference, can she allow herself to feel the fear of such trust and embrace difference anyway? The spiritual dimensions — and profound stakes — of that battle are made clear when one of the creatures, whom Meg comes to call Aunt Beast, tells her that, “We look not at the things which are what you would call seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal. But the things which are not seen are eternal.” How Meg responds to their radical difference will determine whether she is able ultimately to fight IT.

L’Engle writes in the tradition of C. S. Lewis and Victorian fantasist George MacDonald, for whom spiritual battles were as significant as any hunger game or wizarding contest. Working in a self-consciously but extremely generous Christian mode (specifically Episcopalian), L’Engle consistently argues in her many works that dogma — what we say we believe — is far less important than the struggle to do what is right against the forces that would have us conform, refuse our difference, give in to the herd, and deny our own voice and potential. And part of that conformity, that giving in to the herd, is fear of the difference of others. Indeed, for L’Engle, fearing others’ difference is just symptomatic of fearing your own difference.

Disney Studios, despite its best intentions, is likely to offer us lessons in palatable difference as opposed to an invigorating and challenging diversity. For sure, the multiracial casting (the book doesn’t overtly identify the races of its characters) is fully and beautifully in line with a trend — a healthy one — to represent a true range of human heroes. Hollywood is learning the lesson of the importance of such representation the hard way. But I hope that diverse representation is not where the adaptation stops. L’Engle’s novel acknowledges that diversity — difference — isn’t always about feeling good. For L’Engle, diversity should be challenging; difference should make us a bit uncomfortable. How else can it then prompt us to confront our own fears?

And that’s what A Wrinkle in Time is ultimately about. The characters’ differences discomfort them — but they are also intolerable to the darkness of IT that wants sameness and homogeneity. Wrinkle’s lesson is the jubilant embrace of difference, despite the recognition that such an embrace is often accompanied by difficulty and struggle.

To celebrate the introduction of L’Engle’s work to a new generation of readers, we’ve asked a range of folks to tell us about the importance of this book to their own lives. Contributors to this special section include a scholar, an illustrator and graphic artist, a budding fiction writer, and two YA novelists. I hope you enjoy their reflections — and, if you haven’t read A Wrinkle in Time yet, “tesser” over to your nearest local, non-chain bookstore and get a copy now!

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CECIL CASTELLUCCI: I’m not lying when I tell you that I wouldn’t be an author if it weren’t for Madeleine L’Engle and A Wrinkle in Time. I first read the novel in fifth grade. I know this because I wrote a book report on it that I keep as a childhood treasure.

It’s not a very good book report. I was never the greatest student. But I put a lot of effort into it. A book report is academic, and what I really wanted to do was write a love letter. Because A Wrinkle in Time was more than a book to me. It was an affirmation that someone like me could be a hero in a story, that stormy nights could usher you from this world to another, that you could find the rare thing that made you you. In Meg Murry, I found a kindred spirit. Reading the book, I felt as though time shifted; I could finally see how to find a place in an extraordinary story.

You see, I recognized myself in Meg — the way she felt in school, the way her family was, the way she felt about herself. Many people do. But just like Meg, I was the unexceptional, mousy, brown-haired girl with a brilliant younger brother and two scientist parents. Just like Meg, I felt that I had nothing to contribute to my family’s brilliance, which I could grasp but couldn’t quite match. I felt down on myself. Just like Meg, I didn’t quite fit in at school. I was a little too smart and independent, but not quite smart in a way that was recognized. I was odd and weird looking, not beautiful like my mother. I was differently intelligent from the rest of my family.

I was Meg. Meg was me. Meg’s mother’s soothing words about her were things that my own mother said to me, but of course when my mother said it, I couldn’t believe it. Yet somehow I could hear and feel everything that Meg wasn’t getting. And the moment that Meg went on the adventure, tesseracting away to other worlds and finding her true strength and her brave heart, it opened a door for me — as if anything might be possible for me, too. The book showed that girls like me and Meg could contribute to saving the world, that we had a rare, valuable thing inside of us, that we were heroines. I loved the book because it was a lifeline, a guide to having confidence in what was different about me, in owning that difference and making it part of what was good about me.

I didn’t stop at A Wrinkle in Time. I read and devoured all of L’Engle’s Time Quintet novels. They became books I would reread throughout my childhood. When I was around 25 years old, I reread them again and was blown away to see how much they had given me. I felt that I should really give thanks to Madeleine L’Engle for guiding me through my insecurities and for giving me confidence. For giving me Meg Murry as someone that I could point to and recognize. And so I sat down and wrote her a letter, explaining how much I was like Meg and how much Meg and her adventures had helped me see something vital in myself. I told of the parallels to my family, and how after reading her book I had felt as though I too could save worlds from falling into darkness. And then I confessed a secret that I had not yet told anyone and had barely revealed to myself — I told her that I longed to write for young people one day.

A few months later, I received a letter back — a letter that is buried in a box in my parents’ basement. The most important thing L’Engle said in her letter was something along the lines of: Cecil, why don’t you sit down and start then? Why don’t you write your own book for young people? That letter, that sentiment, that encouragement was the push I needed to step into the world of fiction writing. Madeleine L’Engle had made me want to be a storyteller when I read A Wrinkle in Time. And then she gently nudged me to set sail on narrative adventures of my own. I wish I could thank her again for what she and A Wrinkle in Time gave me: confidence, adventure, and my own stories to tell.

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ERIC L. TRIBUNELLA: No one likes a precocious child. Charles Wallace, the five-year-old prodigy at the center of A Wrinkle in Time, appears to know this, since he mostly keeps quiet and lets people think he’s a little slow. Along with Charles Wallace, the other main character in L’Engle’s classic children’s novel is Meg, who wears braces and glasses and does math problems with her physicist father for fun. Meg gets into trouble at school because she’s smart and bored. Fourteen-year-old Calvin, the final member of the space-faring trio, is already a high school junior because he’s so bright.

I must have been about 11 or 12 when I got on a L’Engle kick and tore through what was then the Time Quartet. One of the things I appreciated about L’Engle’s books was that they seemed to be written especially for and about nerdy, awkward children. A Wrinkle in Time is part science fiction, part fantasy, and part vocabulary book. Readers encounter Einsteinian physics and celestial centaurs, but also fun words like “peremptory,” “inexorable,” and “bilious.” L’Engle quotes Shakespeare’s The Tempest and alludes to the Cold War, and she manages to throw in this grown-up stuff without seeming pedantic, unlike Meg’s principal, Mr. Jenkins.

Wrinkle acknowledges and even affirms the aspirational preteen who’s in a hurry to know sophisticated things and get past the time-killing busywork of school. L’Engle imagines a reader like Meg, who wonders why all young people need to know the imports and exports of Nicaragua. Instead, the novel offers practical and philosophical lessons about life that are perfectly timed for readers on the brink of adolescence: one way to cope with deadly serious things is to treat them lightly; being angry and rebellious can be necessary in certain situations; your parents don’t know everything and can’t always help you; having a Calvin around to grasp your hand is thrilling; sometimes finding a happy medium is the best you can do. Critics traditionally disparage didacticism in works for children, but some child readers appreciate learning lessons from fiction, especially if they think they aren’t supposed to know them yet.

In respecting children and depicting flawed adults, Wrinkle suggests that it might be okay for young people to doubt their elders. Perhaps readers have permission, then, to take issue with the novel’s tone about poor people, signified by Calvin’s toothless, child-beating mother, and his snide description of his birth family: “They all have runny noses.” Meg, too, is disappointed in her parents and a little resentful that she has to be the one to rescue her brother; she and Calvin make a pair of snarky teenagers who are highly competent but a bit lacking in magnanimity.

Apparently some publishers didn’t know what to do with a book for precocious children. L’Engle’s Newbery Medal–winning novel was famously rejected numerous times before being picked up by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In the “Afterword” to the 50th anniversary edition, L’Engle’s granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis notes that one reason publishers declined it was that it was “something between an adult and juvenile novel” — too inaccessible for average children but too simple for urbane grown-ups (presumably). L’Engle’s difficulty finding a publisher makes sense if we consider that the novel is partly about unintelligibility. The ancient Mrs. Who finds it easier to communicate with the children by quoting philosophers and writers than finding her own words; Calvin is along for the ride because of his ability to communicate intuitively with alien beasts and possessed children; and Meg’s success in defeating IT depends on her ability to interpret the cryptic advice she receives and IT’s inability to understand her. Neither characters nor readers ever know everything about what’s going on, like why Meg has to be the one to confront IT and why exactly her powerful friends can’t help her out or be straight with her. So A Wrinkle in Time is also part mystery, a difficult book for and about difficult children.

I’m sorry that I was disappointed in my junior high biology teacher, Mrs. Harding, for being perplexed when I asked her about farandolae after reading one of the Wrinkle sequels, A Wind in the Door (1973). I hadn’t realized at the time that L’Engle made the word up, and like Meg I hadn’t yet internalized what the real child genius Charles Wallace figured out early about not being a smart aleck. I should have paid more attention to the fact that the villain of the book is an oversized brain, but even Charles Wallace got himself into trouble by being too smug and thinking he was better than IT.

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JULIA WALTON: Middle school was hard. In addition to being painfully aware of my own awkwardness and hyper-sensitive to other people’s opinions of me, I thought it would be a good idea to get bangs when my wavy hair was already waging war against my forehead. Gentle reader, this was not a good idea.

So, during a time when I would have gladly melted into the floor rather than participate in any social activities with my peers, books spoke to me. They told me that I was worthy of adventure, that I could save myself, that some stuff was going to be hard but would get better, that every challenge dumped in my path was going to make me stronger.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was definitely one of the stories that shaped me as a reader, and eventually as a writer. Even though by then I had already embraced the bookish life and vowed to carry the written word in my soul as long as there was breath in my lungs, this was the first time I’d ever read a book with such complex themes. The amazing thing was that they should have been difficult to understand, but they weren’t, because L’Engle never once treated her readers like children.

Outside the world of fiction, though, I was still a kid. I had a bedtime. I didn’t yet have the power to control my own destiny beyond choosing what cereal I was going to have for breakfast. So when I read this book, I could hear L’Engle speaking directly to me through that magical author/reader portal. With every reference to other dimensions, advanced scientific theory, and religious allegory, she said in a booming voice: You are not stupid. This was the first book I remember reading where the protagonist was a girl, good at math, and had parents who were both scientists. Before Hermione Granger, Meg was the geeky heroine I needed. She had talent, but she certainly wasn’t perfect, so her existence gave me permission to become whoever it was I was meant to be. I could be weird and unapologetically nerdy. Here was proof that I didn’t have to meet anyone else’s expectations, I just had to rise to meet my own.

The story was groundbreaking, but for me one of the most amazing things was that it was the first book I ever read that addressed ideas of religion and science simultaneously, as if the two did not need to be at war with each other. Three supernatural beings could enter a story, quote the Bible, and still propel themselves and three children into another dimension with absolute plausibility. A Wrinkle in Time made it possible for great artists and religious figures to coexist on the same plane. Readers could appreciate ideas for their brilliance without having to agonize over whether or not they conformed with the speaker’s chosen faith. L’Engle encouraged readers to think of themselves as citizens of the universe, which had the interesting effect of making me feel both small and important at the same time.

Sometimes when we don’t yet understand our place in the world, we need older, wiser voices to lift us up. We need to be told that we are capable and that difficult ideas are not beyond our comprehension. I needed A Wrinkle in Time for that, and I return to it now when I need the confidence to understand concepts that are almost out of reach.

This is why many of us return to our favorite stories. As adults, we still listen for the voices of our favorite writers and remember a time when they thought we were capable of understanding more. They believed in us when we didn’t yet believe in ourselves.

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HOPE LARSON: I clearly remember the day I first heard about A Wrinkle in Time. I was a kid, probably seven or eight years old, and two adults were discussing the strangeness of the novel. They made it sound weird and slightly taboo, which made me eager to read it myself. When I finally did, I had to agree that it was weird. I didn’t understand all of it, but I was instantly hooked on L’Engle’s writing.

Accent on Books, the local independent bookstore near the university where my dad worked, had a shelf dominated by a huge selection of L’Engle’s novels, and I worked my way through them all. I thrilled to the microscopic world of mitochondria and farandolae in A Wind in the Door and traveled into the past in An Acceptable Time (1989). I was bored by the more grounded and religion-focused Austin family books — they seemed too goodie-goodie to me — and I was confused by A House Like a Lotus. The angel sex in Many Waters flew over my head at the time, but now I find it giggle-inducing and charmingly scandalous. Selections from the Time Quintet were favorites of mine for years, even as a teenager. When bad dreams scared me awake in the middle of the night, I’d pull A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) off the bookshelf and read it until I fell back to sleep.

When I was offered, out of the blue, an opportunity to adapt and illustrate a graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time, I returned to the book with fresh eyes and did my best to adapt it faithfully. I realized for the first time that L’Engle’s work had been a significant influence on my own. Wrinkle’s combination of the fantastical with the mundane, and its complicated, difficult, not-always-likable protagonist, are elements I’ve returned to more than once. I also found L’Engle to be a generous posthumous collaborator. As I wrote the script for my adaptation, I realized her novel was the ideal source material for a comic book. It contained a thrilling plot, plenty of dialogue, and very little internal monologue (which works delightfully in novels but can be clunky and distracting in comics), and it was sketchy enough on the physical details of the characters and their environments that I could fill in the blanks from my own imagination. It was as though L’Engle was permitting me space to take liberties and add small flourishes without trampling on the world she’d created decades before.

I’ve been told L’Engle never wanted her work to be illustrated. I’m not sure why that might be, but perhaps she wanted each of her readers to feel ownership of these books by constructing them in their own imaginations. I sympathize with that position, but on the other hand, I’ve heard from many parents and educators that seeing the images and the facial expressions of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin drawn on the page makes A Wrinkle in Time accessible to readers who find a massive wall of prose impossible to scale. Literary types love to pooh-pooh comics and film adaptations, and there are plenty of bad ones, but a good adaptation is like Mrs. Who’s magic glasses: it lets readers see their way into a work. I haven’t seen Ava DuVernay’s upcoming movie, but I suspect her adaptation is a good one. I’ve spent most of my lifetime with the novel, and I’m ready to see it through another lens. I can’t wait.

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CECILIA LATIOLAIS: When I was asked to write about A Wrinkle in Time, the first thing I did was pluck the novel off my shelf to reread it. Excited as I was to be “required” to return to a favorite childhood book for a very “adult” task (oh, the narratives we tell ourselves), I was, nonetheless, concerned. What if L’Engle’s novel — which occupies such a unique, inspirational place in my memory — came across as dull to my older self? What if Meg wasn’t really the supremely feisty geek I remembered? What if Mrs. Whatsit didn’t actually say, “Wild nights are my glory,” in a way that made me realize they were my glory, too? What if the Murrys didn’t have a dog named Fortinbras with a wonderfully vibrant personality? Well, I’m happy to report that Meg is indeed a firecracker, that Mrs. Whatsit did make her marvelous statement, and that Fortinbras deserved more page time than any of the humans, save for Meg and Charles Wallace. Childhood magic preserved!

On the other hand, I was keenly aware of how cloying the dialogue sounded to me now. Granted, I had always found Calvin a bit two-dimensional (probably due to my aversion to goody-two-shoes types). But on this reading, I came to find Meg and Calvin’s flirtatious exchanges and L’Engle’s Hardy-Boys-on-steroids diction tiresome. Perhaps more surprising was Meg’s acceptance of this tedium, even though she’s a self-proclaimed impatient person.

As I reached the sections with IT and Aunt Beast, however, all my skepticism dissipated. Why? What was I responding to so forcefully in these scenes? Aunt Beast says to Meg, “Oh, child, your language is so utterly simple and limited that it has the effect of extreme complication.” This proclamation rang true, and the insight was hinted at several other times: Mrs. Who speaks in quotations rather than formulating her own words, and rather than Calvin’s great gift of communication, it is Meg’s ability to love that ultimately saves Charles Wallace. While language is a driving force behind the victory of good over evil, L’Engle’s acknowledgment of the insufficiency of words is just as crucial a force in the story, if not more so.

Perhaps the reason this theme stands out to me so starkly is because the strengths and weaknesses of language are undeniably relevant to our current political situation, so loud and verbose. Words — whether true or false, kind or cruel — can be blasted over virtual platforms, inundating us. The new film version of A Wrinkle in Time reformulates this idea of language’s insufficiency through the process of adaptation. Ava DuVernay’s filmmaking decisions — most obviously, her brave casting choices — combine words with action, highlighting the weight this combination holds. I think Meg Murry would be proud.

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Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at UC Irvine. He is authored or edited 13 books, including the critical memoir, Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology (2017).

Cecil Castellucci is YA editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and the author of many novels for young adults.

Eric L. Tribunella teaches children’s and young adult literature at the University of Southern Mississippi. The author or co-author of two books on children’s literature, he also edited an edition of Edward Prime-Stevenson’s Left to Themselves, a nineteenth-century gay children’s novel.

Julia Walton received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University. Her debut young adult novel, Words on Bathroom Walls, was published by Random House in 2017.

Hope Larson is the author of many graphic novels for young readers, including an adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. She currently resides in Asheville, North Carolina.

Cecilia Latiolais has an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of California, Riverside. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.


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