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Daring to Disturb the Universe: Madeleine L’Engle

Amy E. Robertson By Amy E. Robertson Published on September 1, 2017
"The stories I cared about, the stories I read and reread, were usually stories which dared to disturb the universe, which asked questions rather than gave answers."
Madeleine L’Engle

I must have been 9 when I first read A Wrinkle in Time, and I was immediately hooked. A ‘witch’ who quotes Seneca, Shakespeare and Dante, travels through space and time based on the principles of quantum physics, themes of the dangers of conformity and the importance of fighting for what is right and good, and an awkward young protagonist (perhaps 13, although the book never specifies) who must use her faults to save the day.

What was not to love?

Publishers at the time weren’t so sure. Author Madeleine L’Engle was writing ‘middle grade’ and ‘young adult’ novels before such nomenclature existed. They were simply books for children, yet ones that never spoke down to their audience. L’Engle once told The New York Times, “Publisher after publisher turned down A Wrinkle in Time because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was too difficult for children, and was it a children’s or an adults’ book, anyhow?” A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by twenty-six publishers.

L’Engle was reading Einstein’s writings when she conceived of the book, and she wove together the concepts of chronos, kairos and quantum physics to create the world that her heroine Meg Murry inhabits. The Ancient Greeks identified regular, clock-measured time as chronos. Kairos, on the other hand, is qualitative—the right time, the propitious moment. (Ancient Indians divided time similarly, the Sanskrit words being kala, or chronos, and ritu, or kairos.) Meg’s father has used quantum physics, or “a wrinkle in time” to travel through the universe, and is now trapped on the other side. Together with her younger brother Charles Wallace, and a new friend named Calvin O’Keefe, Meg must find the right moment—and use her faults—to rescue her father.

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After all the rejections, L’Engle’s agent returned the manuscript to her. That Christmas, L’Engle threw a tea party for her mother, and one of the guests knew John C. Farrar of the publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Although the company did not publish children’s books at the time, introductions were made. They both believed in the book, and in children’s ability to “get it”. Kairos at work, I am sure L’Engle would have said.

A Wrinkle in Time was embraced by readers and critics alike, and received the Newbery Medal, the Sequoyah Book Award, and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and was runner-up for the Hans Christian Andersen Award.

(A note for fellow writers: L’Engle published her first book in 1945, and three more by 1951. After that she suffered “a decade of failure”, and at the age of 40 decided to give up writing.

She found herself writing fiction in her head, and decided to return to putting words on paper, leading to Meet the Austins and then A Wrinkle in Time. #WriterInspiration)

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L’Engle went on to write four companion books to A Wrinkle in Time, spread out over twenty-seven years. Each of them received glowing praise from critics at the time of publication, and all reiterated the themes of universal love and the power of an individual to effect change. L’Engle also wrote realistic fiction for tweens and teens, including a series centered around the Austin family. The fourth book in the Austin series, A Ring of Endless Light, was named a Newbery Honor Book in 1981, and won several other awards. Romance often appeared in her books, but she didn’t shy away from tying in heavier themes: disappointment and betrayal, family strife, death. Characters from one book often appear in other book or story, an aspect I loved.

In addition to her books for tweens and teens, L’Engle wrote children’s picture books, poetry, and both fiction and non-fiction for adults. L’Engle was a devout Episcopalian, and a few of her books are specifically about faith and religion, while there are only occasional references to Christianity in many other books, including A Wrinkle in Time. L’Engle was a believer in universal reconciliation: the idea that all souls—because of divine love and mercy—will ultimately be reconciled to God. This belief, however, is at odds with the doctrine of many Christian denominations, which caused her books to be excluded from some Christian bookstores, while at the same time, the books were criticized by others for being “too religious”.

After a long and prolific life, L’Engle passed away on September 6, 2007, but A Wrinkle in Time is far from forgotten. Esteemed producer and director Ava DuVernay (13th, Selma) has collaborated with Disney to create what promises to be a stunning and spectacular silver screen version of the book, due in theaters on March 9, 2018. If the trailer is any indication, the movie is going to be EPIC. (Be a warrior!” urges Oprah as Mrs. Which.)

Rereading A Wrinkle in Time this summer, I found it as fresh and timely as it was when I first read it. In L’Engle’s work, a darkness is “actively spreading throughout the universe” and characters are called to take personal responsibility to fight it. The themes are both timely, and eternal. I am excited for a new generation of readers to be introduced to L’Engle’s stories with the movie release. Warriors welcome.

Reader, writer, globetrotter. Seattle native who has lived in six countries (current home: New York). Food obsessed. Bylines in NPR, Wall Street Journal, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel and more.

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