If I said A Wrinkle in Time was the first book my mother read to me out loud, I would be a lying. There would have been the Maurice Sendaks, the Dr. Seusses, the early Chris Van Alsburgs, not to mention the awfully written Transformers and Masters of the Universe “storybooks.” But none of experiences are even as remotely memorable as when mom read A Wrinkle in Time to me over the course of several weeks.
It’s the first book I truly remember having read to me. And through the power of a tesseract, I remember it being all happening in one dark, stormy night.
Like so many famous childhood books, I suspect Madeleine L’Engle lost ownership of A Wrinkle in Time fairly quickly. I don’t mean legally but in the sense of the emotional investment the story created in so many readers. Children and their readers took this book as their own likely from the moment the first person read “It was a dark and stormy night” to a rapt young listener. I know that’s how it went for me.
Madeleine L’Engle didn’t invent this opening passage. It first appeared in an 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton. But who cares? Sherlock Holmes stole “the game’s afoot!” from Henry V, but we think of the famous sleuth when we hear it. So, let’s give L’Engle “a dark and stormy night” because it’s a fantastic way to launch one of the best children’s adventures of all time. To call the prose of A Wrinkle in Time atmospheric would be like saying the film version of The Wizard of Oz has pretty colors.
Further, by having Meg chat a bit with her kitten at the start, intentionally or not, L’Engle evokes Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Though it’s hard to conceive of a children’s book protagonist cooler than Alice, Meg Murry is pretty damn cool. She doesn’t have all the answers, and is frequently shown-up by her younger brother Charles Wallace. As I child, I knew Meg was the main character, and I was glad she wasn’t perfect. Meg is on a mission to rescue her parents, meaning anything she does in that pursuit was correct in my mind. Her plight makes her the every-child and her shortcomings make her Meg.
There is one chapter I remember from this out loud read of A Wrinkle in Time more than any other: “Chapter 5, The Tesseract.” Here, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Who explain to Meg (with the help of Charles Wallace) exactly how they get around in the 5th dimension. This chapter is ideal for out loud reading to a child because it contains simple line-drawing illustrations. Check it out:
Mrs. Who took a portion of her white robe in her hands and held it tight.
“You see,” Mrs.Whatsit said, “if a very small insect were to move from the section of skirt in Mrs. Who’s right hand to that in her left, it would be quiet a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across.”
Swiftly Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together.
“Now, you see Mrs. Whatsit said, “he would be there, with-out that long trip. That is how we travel.”
These plain descriptions from the characters and simple drawings burn the fantastical concept of the book into the mind of a child more than maybe any other piece of magic or science fiction explained or depicted in any other novel. As Meg says: “I got it! For just a moment I got it! I can’t possibly explain it now, but there for a second I saw it!” When I heard this out loud, I also got it, if only for a second. I think this is because the book was letting me have both curiosity about the universe and hazy wonderment/confusion at the same time. Neither Meg nor Charles Wallace can win the whole knowledge, instead they can get through it the best they can. And as the action of the novel depicts, they make a lot of mistakes.
For me, and I suspect a lot of kids, this feels both comfortable and challenging simultaneously. In some ways, trying to “get” the concept of the tesseract is sort of like taking one’s first step toward growing up. You can take the journey from child to young adult one step at a time, or like Meg and Charles Wallace you can try to “tesser” and understand something much larger than yourself more quickly. A straight line might be the safe way to travel, but the tesseract might be better. Even if you don’t really “get it” completely, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit are there to remind you that confusion is totally normal and understandable.
It’s not an easy journey for Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin, but it’s an unforgettable one. All the kids do a lot of growing up in A Wrinkle in Time, but what’s great is that anyone who reads the rest of L’Engle’s books in this series will literally see the characters grow up. I remember when I received Many Waters years after having A Wrinkle in Time read to me, and being blown away that the book was about the twins (Sandy and Dennys) as near-adults. The fictional universe and the characters in it became super-real for me in that moment, and all I was doing was reading the description on the back!
Beyond the huge imaginative universe, A Wrinkle in Time and the books that follow have another premise and message for children: life is big and expansive and scary. But if you jump forward, in the 5th dimension, the possibilities of the future will blow your little mind.
And if you don’t understand what this growing up thing is all about, these books are here to help guide you through the dark and stormy universe.
This article was originally posted on February 13, 2012
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.