It’s been 50 years since a troublemaking math-whiz, a pensive basketball player, and a child genius first "tessered" across time and the universe in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. An event celebrating the genre-crossing novel took place on February 11 at Manhattan’s Symphony Space and was simulcast to select bookstores around the country. Judging by the multigenerational audience that packed the theatre, time has only strengthened the book’s appeal. The event was so popular that there were scalpers on the sidewalk outside the event.
In the minutes before the event began, the excitement in the auditorium was palpable, as eager readers filed in, clutching dog-eared editions of A Wrinkle in Time, as well as books written by Rebecca Stead, R.L. Stine, Katherine Paterson, and Lois Lowry, who took part in a panel discussion about L’Engle’s classic novel.
Following a short video reenactment of A Wrinkle in Time (part of the "90-Second Newbery Film Festival") starring wig-wearing kids with some impressive dance moves, Betsy Bird, youth materials specialist at the New York Publish Library, greeted the audience. She commented on how as a child, “Meg Murry was my Harry Potter,” and then introduced a book trailer for the commemorative edition of A Wrinkle in Time (Macmillan/Square Fish), which contains bonus features like L’Engle’s Newbery acceptance speech and an introduction from Katherine Paterson.
The new edition also includes an afterword from L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, who took the stage to offer a few words of remembrance for her grandmother. Voiklis mentioned L’Engle’s pain over A Wrinkle in Time’s many rejections, her fondness (“like Mrs. Whatsit”) for Russian caviar, and her affection for a good party: "She would have loved this," Voiklis said.
The audience then heard a recording of Madeleine L’Engle herself (from a Listening Library audio book) reflecting on A Wrinkle in Time, as images of the late author, provided by the L’Engle estate, appeared on-screen. L’Engle articulated how publishers had difficulty categorizing A Wrinkle in Time and thought that the book might be too difficult for children. Instead, the author suggested that the book was actually "too difficult for grownups," whose minds are closed off to possibilities.
The panelists– Lowry (The Giver), Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia), Stead (When You Reach Me), and Stine (the Goosebumps series) – arrived on stage to thunderous applause. Bird launched the discussion by asking the panel members to describe their first individual encounters with A Wrinkle in Time.
Stine admitted that his first encounter with Wrinkle happened "last week," explaining that when he was the age of the book’s intended audience, he was reading another science fiction classic, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Stead, whose Newbery-winning When You Reach Me pays homage to A Wrinkle in Time, had a very different first encounter with the book. Not only did she read Wrinkle multiple times, but she also met L’Engle once. Stead recalled “staring at her blankly,” explaining how she couldn’t believe that someone who could create such a world as encompasses A Wrinkle in Time could look like a relatively “regular person.” She also added that, because A Wrinkle in Time was such an important book for her as a child, that she has always been resistant to analyzing it. “I want to relate to this story the way I did as a kid,” she said.
When she was a "mother with young children learning to write books," Paterson first read A Wrinkle in Time. Though she remembered having "great sympathy for Meg," she also admitted feeling "flabbergasted" and “puzzled” by Wrinkle’s complex content ranging from Christianity to physics. Reading from the point of view of an adult author, she carefully analyzed L’Engle’s inclusion of science as well as biblical and literary quotations.
Busy raising four young children in 1962, the year Wrinkle was published, Lowry recalled that 'I didn’t read a single book that year," but went on to share her first experience with Wrinkle as witnessed through her daughters’ eyes. Her younger daughter’s reaction was: "I love Charles Wallace," while her older daughter articulated that Wrinkle was the first book she’d read "that explained the theory of relativity." Recently asking her now grown-up daughters to tell her what they remembered about A Wrinkle in Time, they said the exact same things. Lowry’s anecdote seemed to underscore how formative and enduring readers’ first impressions of books like A Wrinkle in Time can be.
Next, Bird turned the conversation to the topic of L’Engle herself, asking the authors if they had ever met her and also what they would have wanted to ask her, given the opportunity.
Paterson, like Stead, did meet L’Engle once. She described her as "tall, dignified, and very bright" and added that she was even a little afraid of her. The question that Paterson would have wanted to ask L’Engle would be one that concerns many children’s book authors: "How do you do it: write a book that affects children for the rest of their lives?"
In response to Paterson’s comment, Stead noted that such a question (and others related to the art of storytelling) can be “impossible to answer,” because the answer would be “so entwined” with L’Engle’s identity. "There’s no way to give that to someone else," she said.
Stine joked that he would ask L’Engle " 'Where do you get your ideas?' just to be really annoying," saying that it’s a question that he is often asked himself.
Though Lowry never met L’Engle, she described reaching out to her in a letter following the death of Lowry’s son. L’Engle, too, had lost a son and Lowry wanted to ask L’Engle how she had “wrestled” with such a loss. Although the letter was overlooked in the flurry of mail that L’Engle received, Lowry reports that studying the spiritual components of A Wrinkle in Time led her to find an answer to her question.
Bird asked the speakers to name their favorite character in the book and to explain the appeal of that character. "What’s up with Charles Wallace?" quipped Stine. Suggesting that Charles is both fascinating and beyond belief, he added, "He’s omniscient.... He makes food for his parents." Also on the topic of the enigmatic Charles Wallace, Paterson cited her own belief that telepathy among children might just be "another step in evolution."
Responding to Stine’s comment, Stead said: "My son made me lunch today." Then she pointed to Meg as her favorite character in Wrinkle: "[Meg] gave me access to the internal life of a girl like me," Stead said. She added that it was through Meg’s vulnerability and "self-doubting" that she was able to address her own private feelings that girls don’t always share with one another at that age. Meeting Meg was Stead’s way of "having that conversation."
Turning to Stine, Bird asked him to elaborate on the comment that he recently made in an Atlantic article, in which he stated, "Meg is a precursor to heroines such as Katniss from The Hunger Games." Stine reflected that, while he does believe that Meg may have paved the way for a strong character like Katniss, the two books are quite different. Expressing the wish that he could slightly revise his original comment, he said, "Maybe the two books shouldn’t be compared. The Hunger Games is fiercely realistic. A Wrinkle in Time is more fairy tale."
The question led to a discussion of whether or not The Hunger Games, with its level of brutality and violence, would have been published if it had been written in the era of A Wrinkle in Time. In a word, the panelists agreed—no. Alternately, with its pointed Christian themes, would A Wrinkle in Time be published today? Perhaps not.
Bird asked Stead to elaborate upon the influence that A Wrinkle in Time had on When You Reach Me. Stead’s character Miranda often reads from A Wrinkle in Time, and like Stead herself, Miranda is "fiercely protective" of the book. Initially, Stead thought that the book’s role in her story was simply a "note to the author," which would be removed in later drafts. But instead, she worked on "earning the right" to give Wrinkle its place in the novel. When Marcus, another character in When You Reach Me, reads Wrinkle, Stead reported rereading the book herself for the first time in many years. However, she said she still didn’t read it from an "adult perspective," instead viewing it from the perspective of one of her own child characters.
At the close of the panel, actor Jane Curtin read a rousing passage from A Wrinkle in Time, providing the voices of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which. Next, students from the Brunswick School and Greenwich Academy performed a selection from Wrinkle, featuring the eerily synchronized voices of the beings of Camazotz.
In conclusion, the audience heard from children’s book critic Leonard S. Marcus, whose new book about L’Engle, Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices, will be released from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in fall 2012. He spoke about L’Engle’s masterful ability to captivate an audience with what he described as her “magical Scheherazade bag” of stories. He finished by remarking how “Madeleine believed that everyone had their own story to tell,” and urging the audience of all ages to carry that thought home with them.