As our “Best YA Novel of All Time” bracket continues, we’re unveiling our picks, which didn’t advance as far as we would like. Here’s the case for Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
First of all, I’ve got to level with you — I never really thought of A Wrinkle in Time as being a YA book. That’s mainly because I read Madeleine L’Engle’s masterpiece for the first time when I was in fourth grade, a few years before becoming a young adult myself.
More specifically: It was recess. I was on the playground. All around me, fellow elementary schoolers were shrieking and running and learning the basics of social interaction, but I didn’t care — because it was a dark and stormy night at the Murry family’s 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse, which was pretty much the coolest thing I could possibly imagine.
Given that last sentence, you can probably gather why I was immediately captivated by Wrinkle‘s charming misfit of a heroine: awkward, irritable, smart-but-underachieving Meg Murry. Like me, Meg wore glasses; like me, she felt like she never quite fit anywhere, neither among the dreadfully normal kids at school nor among her uncommonly gifted family. (As her child genius younger brother Charles Wallace puts it, Meg is “not one thing or the other, not flesh or fowl nor good red herring.” I had absolutely no idea what that meant, but I loved the way it sounded anyway.)
What I didn’t understand back then is that at some point, everyone feels like an outsider. Ironically enough, alienation is one of the most universal emotions there is — especially for adolescent girls. And Meg, with her braces and mousy hair and occasionally sour attitude, was a brilliant avatar for those girls at their most adolescent. Anne of Green Gables was unfailingly optimistic and romantic; the sisters at the center of Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series, which I used to love, were kind and polite and almost suspiciously chipper, even though all they seemed to do was housework. But Meg felt more real, probably because she was so believably flawed.
Which, as Wrinkle fans know, is kind of the point.
Shortly after introducing Meg and Charles Wallace and their soon-to-be pal Calvin O’Keefe — Calvin! Already I can feel myself swooning — L’Engle’s novel skillfully shifts from a humble, earth-bound story to a fantastical adventure filled with old women who are really exploded stars, beautiful winged space centaurs, and mind-blowing concepts like the tesseract, which allows Meg and company to travel the universe by folding the fabric of space and time. (I’ll always resent the Marvel Cinematic Universe for co-opting that term.) Eventually, they wind up on a conformity-obsessed planet called Camazotz, where Meg and Charles Wallace’s physicist father has been imprisoned. It’s up to the kids to save him from the planet’s nightmarish dictator, a grotesquely gigantic brain simply called IT.
And this is where Meg finally gets her moment of triumph. After Charles Wallace is unwittingly drawn into IT’s thrall, Meg returns to rescue him from the brain’s horrible grasp. There, she turns to her greatest faults — impatience, stubbornness — to save herself from falling under IT’s spell. But ultimately, she learns that holding onto another fault — her tendency toward anger — is allowing IT to get the upper hand (or tentacle, or whatever). Instead, Meg must tap into something else to get Charles Wallace back: her bond with her brother. Love, in the end, is the only thing that can defeat the personification (or brainification, or whatever) of evil.
Yes, it may sound a little corny to our modern, cynical ears. The ending’s message, though — that some apparent weaknesses are really strengths, while others can be overcome through hard work and the advent of maturity — is more complex than the platitude that love conquers all. More importantly, when Wrinkle ends, Meg hasn’t magically transformed into some kickass Mary Sue warrior princess. Instead, she’s still basically the same kid — albeit a little older, a little wiser, and a little closer to having dreamboat Calvin as her first boyfriend. That’s a very good thing; a poised and patient Meg just wouldn’t be the Meg we fell in love with. (Which was one of the reasons that A Swiftly Tilting Planet didn’t really work for me, but I digress.)
L’Engle’s sequels to A Wrinkle in Time aren’t as gripping as the first book; though I’ve read Wrinkle more times than I can count, I plowed my way through A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet just once each. (Many Waters was a slightly different story, mostly because it’s kinda sexy.) But underwhelming sequels can’t take away Wrinkle‘s power; it’ll always have a place in my heart as the first book that seemed as though it had been written specifically for me. Wrinkle‘s true magic, of course, is that it’s given innumerable other people the exact same experience. What more do you need to name a book the greatest YA novel ever?