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Top 100 Children’s Novels #2: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

#2 A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
307 points

The only book I’ve ever finished, turned over, and immediately started reading again. – Lauren Martino

Magical. Thrilling. As a kid, I loved that it stretched my brain. Other dimensions! Time travel! Oh how I loved the “Aunt Beast” creatures — how in a world with no eyes, the inhabitants would never anticipate the existence of sight. I spent hours upon hours trying to imagine other senses *we* don’t have, and so would never anticipate. – Aaron Zenz

This is my number one for very personal reasons—it made such an impact on me as an awkward preteen. I loved Meg for all her imperfections and total loyalty and love for her family. – Heather Christensen

This book takes on the Big Issues of life in a way that makes kids feel like a part of things. Whereas many adults talk down to kids, or assume they can’t understand, L’Engle dives right into the heart of religion, faith, hope, fear, time, and space and gives kids room to ponder those Big Issues within the safe confines of a story. There is a lot to take away from the book, and I notice something new each time I read it, but my favorite thing, time and again, is how Meg’s flaws become her strength. All kids have times when they feel plain, ugly, or out of place, and L’Engle does them a great service by turning those negative feelings into their own kind of superpower. – Katie Ahearn

I can’t say why this book was a favorite of mine, but I think it had to do with relating to Meg Murray. I was nerdy and shy and temperamental and Meg got to go on a cool adventure. How could I not like that book? – Sarah (Green Bean Teen Queen)

I just helped celebrate this book’s 50th anniversary, and rereading it reminded me why it endures. An oddball blend of science fiction, fantasy, and even religion, A Wrinkle in Time continues to touch the Megs of this world, who are in need of all kinds of hope. “So you’re a klutz. You can still change the world. And there will be people who love you, people you love back.” It’s a message that will always matter. – Kate Coombs

This science fantasy leaves you with a wonderful feeling of joy. I didn’t discover it until I was a Sophomore in college, and I will always feel indebted to the person who recommended it to me. – Sondra Eklund

This book is perfect for those smarter than average girls that don’t quite know where they fit in. Despite its stereotypically bad opening line (“It was a dark and stormy night…”) it is a story of rare imagination that shows a battle of good and evil involving higher mathematics, mysterious magical beings, and evil principals- and in this case the girl saves the day! – Christine Kelly

How excited am I for the 50th anniversary? So excited I threw a birthday party for it at my library. So excited I’m writing a year-long series of blog posts on the subject. So excited I’d been PLANNING FOR IT for over a year. Because this is THAT BOOK for me, that ONE BOOK. – A.M. Weir

I was positive that she wrote this book just for me. – Mary Friedrichs

Yeah.  I loved it too.  This one was dear to me.  Alongside Harriet the Spy and The Girl With the Silver Eyes (note what all three girls have in common) it was one of my favorites.  And yep, I have read it since I became an adult.  I still love it.  Just do.

The plot from my own copy reads, “It is a dark and stormy night.  Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother are in the kitchen for a midnight snack when a most disturbing visitor arrives. ‘Wild nights are my glory,’ the unearthly stranger tells them.  ‘I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course.  Let me sit down for a moment and then I’ll be on my way.  Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.’ Meg’s father had been experimenting with this fifth dimension of time travel when he mysteriously disappeared.  Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace to rescue him.  But can they outwit and overpower the forces of evil they will encounter on their heart-stopping journey through space?”

There is serious debate over exactly how many publishers rejected A Wrinkle in Time before it was published.  Anita Silvey says twenty-six so for now we’ll go with that one.  What finally got it out there?  In 100 Best Books for Children she writes, “Madeleine L’Engle hosted a tea party for her visiting mother and some friends.  One of those friends knew John Farrar of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and eventually he accepted L’Engle’s manuscript.  But the publishing firm released only a small first edition, believing that the book would have limited appeal.”

Also, according to American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction, “This book was written while L’Engle was reading Albert Einstein and Max Planck. It was also written as her rebellion against Christian piety; she was trying to discover a theology by which she could live.”

If you haven’t read L’Engle’s Newbery speech it’s well worth perusing.  Someday I hope someone reads all the Newbery acceptance speeches out there and writes an article about them.  L’Engle’s is interesting because she really doesn’t talk much about the book at all.  What she does talk about is Frederic Melcher, the Newbery’s daddy, and the fact that he liked her book.  “I am of the first generation to profit by Mr. Melcher’s excitement, having been born shortly before he established the Newbery award, and growing up with most of these books on my shelves. I learned about mankind from Hendrik Willem van Loon; I traveled with Dr. Dolittle, created by a man I called Hug Lofting; Will James taught me about the West with Smoky; in boarding school I grabbed Invincible Louisa the moment it came into the library because Louisa May Alcott had the same birthday that I have, and the same ambitions. And now to be a very small link in the long chain of those writers, of the men and women who led me into the expanding universe, is both an honor and a responsibility. It is an honor for which I am deeply grateful to Mr. Melcher and to those of you who decided A Wrinkle in Time was worthy of it.”  Read the full speech here, if you’ve a chance.

What’s the book trying to say?  In her April 12, 2004 New Yorker profile of L’Engle, Cynthia Zarin said of the book, “Published in 1962, it is—depending on how you look at it—science fiction, a warm tale of family life, a response to the Cold War, a book about a search for a father, a feminist tract, a religious fable, a coming-of-age novel, a work of Satanism, or a prescient meditation on the future of the United States after the Kennedy assassination.”  Executive producer Catherine Hand agrees with some of that. “The engine that drives it is Meg’s inner life, and it’s astonishing, because here is a girl who at that moment is stronger than her father. For some of us, it planted the seeds of the women’s movement.”

It also was science fiction, a rare bird in the world of popular children’s literature.  In her 1982 article “Childlike Wonder and the Truths of Science Fiction” in Children’s Literature L’Engle defends the use of such science fiction and fantasy in the’ reading lives of children.  She writes, “Recently I received a letter from a young mother who wrote that a neighbor had announced she was not going to allow her children to make their minds fuzzy by reading fantasy or science fiction; she intended to give them books of facts about the real world. For these children, I feel, the real world will be lost. They will live in a limited world in which ideas are suspect. The monsters which all children encounter will be more monstrous because the child will not be armed with the only weapon effective against the unknown: a creative and supple imagination . . . We do not understand time. We know that time exists only when there is mass in motion. We also know that energy and mass are interchangeable, and that pure energy is freed from the restrictions of time. One of the reasons that A Wrinkle in Time took so long to find a publisher is that it was assumed that children would not be able to understand a sophisticated way of looking at time, would not understand Einstein’s theories. But no theory is too hard for a child so long as it is part of a story; and although parents had not been taught Einstein’s E = mc2 in school, their children had been.”  Then she goes on to talk about Chewbacca (this is true).  Good article, that.

It gets banned, and has been right from the start by Christian fundamentalists.  Said L’Engle, “They said it wasn’t a Christian book. I said, ‘Quite right.’ I wasn’t trying to write a Christian book. But, of course, it is. So is ‘Robin Hood.’ The Mrs. Ws witches? They’re guardian angels!”

A Wrinkle in Time was mentioned quite a lot this year since 2010 Newbery winner When You Reach Me makes several references to it in the text.  It even points out a time traveling flaw, which is fun.  In an interview with The Guardian, Ms. Stead explained a bit about why she included it. “It started out as a small detail in Miranda’s story, a sort of talisman, and one I thought I would eventually jettison, because you can’t just toss A Wrinkle in Time in there casually.  But as my story went deeper, I saw that I didn’t want to let the book go. I talked about it with my editor, Wendy Lamb, and to others close to the story. And what we decided was that if we were going to bring L’Engle’s story in, we needed to make the book’s relationship to Miranda’s story stronger. So I went back to A Wrinkle in Time and read it again and again, trying to see it as different characters in my own story might (sounds crazy, but it’s possible). And those readings led to new connections.”

If you would like to see Rebecca talk about the book via video, here is a panel I conducted for the recent 50th Anniversary with Ms. Stead, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, and R.L. Stine.

In Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, photo detective Maureen Taylor explains part of the appeal.  “Meg was my hero.  I immediately identified with her – we had poor handwriting, were clumsy, and wore glasses.  I felt I understood her angst because we were both at an awkward age.  I found it refreshing that a female protagonist could be intelligent and engage in scientific inquiry.  It was a very powerful book for me . . . From A Wrinkle in Time I learned to believe in myself and – from Meg I learned that it was important to question everything.”

Speaking of Newbery winners, Neil Gaiman dropped quite a bomb for many an American children’s librarian when in his Newbery speech he mentioned the change made to the first sentence of the British edition of the book.  Instead of the simply perfect “It was a dark and stormy night,” the British edition for a time read, “It was a dark and stormy night in a small village in the United States.”  Oog.

It won the 1963 Newbery Medal.  It beat out Thistle and Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland by Sorche Nic Leodhas and Men of Athens by Olivia Coolidge.

Said the Saturday Review, “It has the general appearance of being science fiction but it is not. . . . There is mystery, mysticism, a feeling of indefinable brooding horror . . . original, different, exciting”

The Horn Book said, “Fascinating… It makes unusual demands on the imagination and consequently gives great rewards.”

  • Here is a cover for the book that I wish did exist, but is simply an exercise from a talented Jeremy Sorese.  Very clever.
  • My favorite tribute comes from the adorable Faith Erin Hicks who wrote this year’s magnificent GN Friends With Boys.  She sums the book up in a hilarious comic fashion.
  • Underground New York Public Library is a site where pictures of subway readers are caught and preserved.  So, naturally, I was pleased to see Wrinkle on display.
  • 100 Scope Notes made sure to recover the cover.
  • As for this stage production… happy nightmares, kids!  Though I admit I love the beasts and the other effects.

You could hardly call this book bereft of covers, but there are far fewer out there than I would have supposed.  The original up top, you will recall, was illustrated by a fellow Newbery winner.

And announcing the all new graphic novel!

I have not yet had the pleasure of making the true acquaintance of the recent made-for-TV movie adaptation of the book.  Having watched the trailer here, I may just opt out and wait until Jeff Stockwell’s version comes out instead.  Maybe he‘ll have the guts to give Meg glasses.  I’m not holding my breath though.  Particularly since it doesn’t look like it’s happening anyway.  Better that you watch the fantastic 90-Second version instead, all thanks to James Kennedy:

Here’s the cool trailer for the new release of the book:

And here are some goodies from that celebration at Symphony Space I alluded to earlier.  Videos from the event include Jane Curtin reading a selection aloud:

Madeleine’s granddaughter:

Folks explaining why she was important to them:

Me doing the me thing:

And Leonard Marcus talking about the book:

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. “A creative and supple imagination”–perfect. I read a bio of L’Engle that said FSG did not have a children’s division at the time. A Wrinkle in Time was the first book they published just because John Farrar personally liked it so much. For a while A Wrinkle in Time WAS FSG’s children’s division. And then at the Newbery party, editors from other houses approached L’Engle, saying, “Why didn’t you send it to me?” She replied, “I did.” She had a drawerful of rejection slips to prove it. She had actually given up on publishing the book when her friend helped her get it into Farrar’s hands. (Can’t find the source this morning, but it was a pretty memorable account!)

  2. <3 I knew I was being unrealistic when I thought the 50th Anniversary might have helped it stage a hostile takeover of the #1 spot. But holding steady at #2 works, too.

  3. I was kind of hoping it would take over the top spot as well. Sigh. Oh well. Two is still awesome.

  4. Genevieve says

    Two is still terrific (though I had hoped for one). The closest book to my heart of all my childhood books.

  5. Benjamin Collinsworth says

    2 things I recommend listening to:

    1. The audiobooks of the whole series, narrated by L’Engle. Her voice work is pretty great, and in her introduction she explains that while writing the books she read them to her own children. It’s sort of awesome to hear the stories from that perspective.

    2. This NPR interview/appreciation of L’Engle and A Wrinkle in Time with astronaut Janice Voss. The transcript spells it all out, but in the audio you can hear Voss get choked up discussing how the book helped to shape her career as well as her character.