The Best Books Your Children
Probably Aren't Reading...
A wish and hope fulfilled at last. "A Wrinkle In Time"
Two teens and a very special child. A journey through time and space that set the bar for fictional journeys thereafter. A beloved parent trapped by forces beyond his control. And a great pulsing entity that controls every bounce of a ball, every toss of a newspaper, every thought. “IT.”
Before Harry Potter there was “A Wrinkle in Time,” Madeleine L’Engle’s time-space fantasy for young adults. Published in 1962, the story shot like a comet through the Beaver-and-Wallyness of the era. As we passed dog-eared copies around my sixth-grade classroom, it was the first time I remember hearing the phrase, “You gotta read this.”
The 2018 big-screen version kept all of the wonder, all of the heart, while touching it up around the edges.
I think L’Engle even surprised herself. She was already a multi-published author of traditional teen romance and the Austin family series, which posited some big ideas for the time, but without divine intervention. She began pondering Einstein while raising her three children in the country, a setting she employs well in the “home” portions of “A Wrinkle in Time.”
The twins’ vegetable garden, the star-watching rock, New England’s change of seasons.
But these children are seldom home.
Approached by three fallen stars, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, Meg and Charles Wallace Murry and their new friend Calvin O’Keefe undertake a journey by tesseract to bring back Meg’s physicist father. But there are bigger issues at stake here, like the salvation of a planet, and Meg finds herself confronting “IT,” a disembodied brain that controls
all the residents of the planet Camazotz.
Meg must use all that’s in her to confront IT and bring back her beloved Charles Wallace.
She gets an early glimpse of what she’ll be pitted against.
From the book: “What could there be about a shadow that was so terrible that she knew that there had never been before or ever would be again, anything that would chill her with a fear that was beyond shuddering, beyond crying or screaming, beyond the possibility of comfort? Meg’s hand holding the blossoms slowly dropped and it seemed as though a knife gashed through her lungs. She gasped, but there was no air for her to breathe. Darkness glazed her eyes and mind, but as she started to fall into unconsciousness her head dropped down into the flowers which she was still clutching, and as she inhaled the fragrance of their purity her mind and body revived, and she sat up again. The shadow was still there, dark and dreadful.”
On the planet Camazotz, everyone and everything marches to the same rhythm, down to the pattern of rubber balls bouncing. Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin manage to locate Mr. Murry and free him from a state of suspended animation. But Charles Wallace falls under the power of “IT,” and Meg, her father and Calvin narrowly escape.
A damaged Meg is brought to “Aunt Beast” for healing and restoration. Through the process, she realizes that only she knows Charles well enough to bring him back. He was a baby when his father left, and Calvin has only known him a few days. And she must do it herself. So Meg, the least likely of the group to be a heroine, begins the longest walk of her life.
From the book: “She knew that her own puny brain was no mass for this great, bodiless, pulsing, writhing mass on the round dais. She shuddered as she looked at IT. In the lab at school there was a human brain preserved in formaldehyde, and the seniors preparing for college had to take it out and look at it and study it. Meg had felt that when the day came she would never be able to endure it. But now she thought that if only she had a dissecting knife she would slash at IT,
cutting ruthlessly through cerebrum, cerebellum."
There’s a lot to like here. Gawky, bespectacled Meg is every teenage girl’s secret self. She learns to accept who she is, not through Calvin’s attention, but by saving her father and brother from the powers of darkness. Though the later books show her evolved into a poised and pretty woman, she defeats IT (and attracts Calvin) when she’s still wrestling with who she is.
What a role model for girls in 1962. What a role model for today.
Calvin O’Keefe, the boy who seems to have it all, comes from a squalid home and finds what he needs at the Murrys’. Charles Wallace, a little boy with big powers, learns to channel his abilities and accept himself.
Though they have the guidance of adults, including the three delightful “witches,” the young people solve the problems themselves. Even Mr. Murry can’t help his children, and Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin must use all their
hearts, brains and courage to come out of this.
The slang is outdated, or at least retro, and even I chuckled when a breathless narrator described the “great computing machines Meg had seen in her science books.” IT could have used an I.T. director. But this shouldn’t get in the way of the story, and it doesn’t. While the physical details may be moored in the early 60s, the concepts are
on the moneyfor this and future centuries.
“IT” reflected the fear of Americans during the Cold War, when the Western ideals of individuality and personal destiny were under the threat of Communism. Meg, desperate to block “IT,” recites the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal,” and when IT replies, “That’s right, everybody exactly alike,” Meg realizes, “’Like’ and ‘equal’ are not the same.”
It’s a good lesson for governments or teenagers.
Mrs. Whatsit explains this further. From the book: Mrs. Whatsit. “In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet. It is a very strict form of poetry, is it not?” “Yes.” “There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter, yes?" “Yes.” Calvin nodded. “And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way it is not a sonnet, is it?” “No." “But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants, doesn’t he?” “You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but with freedom in it?” “Yes. You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”
L’Engle would follow “Wrinkle” with four other books in the “Time Quintet,” in which Meg, Calvin, Charles Wallace and even the prosaic twin brothers journey across space, time and the human experience. While none of the later books delivered the breathless karate chop of “Wrinkle,” they are all respectable fantasy stories and still better
than what anyone else was doing at that time. Kind of like “Lucy” in Connecticut.
Best to forget the clunky slang, and of course we have better tech toys now. But tech isn't the point. L'Engle's territory is the human heart, and she reaches deep to produce stories about courage, family, friendship and coming of age. Most of the books begin and end at the star-watching rock. If you've got a middle-reader or feel like taking a journey yourself,
the star-watching rock is a good place to start.
The Betsy-Tacy Stories
The Magic World of Edward Eager
Have the children in your house read the Harry Potter series until the covers are falling off? It might be time to discover Edward Eager, a novelist for middle-grade children who worked in the 50s and early 60s. Eager wrote stories of fantasy and magic where ordinary children got caught up in extraordinary events. His work includes “Half Magic,” 1954; “Knight’s Castle,” 1956; “Magic By the Lake,” 1957; “The Time Garden,” 1958; “Magic or Not?,” 1959; “The Well-Wishers,” 1960; and “Seven-Day Magic,” 1962.
There’s a lot to like here. Eager’s children are quick and quirky, with minor personality differences but no nastiness. Though there are adults looking out for them, they are resourceful and solve their own problems. And there are problems to solve and issues to deal with. While Eager’s books aren’t dark, real life has a way of intruding: a lonely widowed mother in “Half Magic,” a father’s work threatened in “Seven-Day Magic,” and a father’s life-threatening illness in “Knight’s Castle.” Eager infuses his stories with a sly wit and real-style sibling squabbles. In “Half Magic,” when an exasperated Jane puts Martha under the seat for talking during a movie, it’s believable.
“Knight’s Castle” is my favorite for a number of reasons. Ann and Roger come with their parents to Baltimore to stay at their Aunt Katherine’s house, while their father undergoes treatment for a serious illness. The adults are weary and preoccupied, and Ann and Roger, along with cousins Jack and Eliza, provide their own entertainment. For Roger, that means creating a tin can and cereal box city where he can play with the tiny tin knights his uncle Mark sent him. When the toys come alive at night and begin enacting their own version of “Ivanhoe,” the magic begins.
In “Half Magic,” Jane, Mark, Katherine and Martha face a lonely, boring summer while their widowed mother works. All that changes when they find an ancient coin, and the coin has magical properties when they rub it. The rub to that? The coin only gives them half of their wish, so they have to practice math skills to get what they really want. It’s all done with humor and grace, and at the end of the summer the children have what they really want, a loving stepfather.
Eager's books make use of ordinary objects, a coin, a toy soldier, a wishing well, and especially a book. In “Seven-Day Magic,” his last book for children, Barnaby, Abbie, John, Susan and Fredericka check out a library book that turns out to be more, recording every word they say and taking them on new magical adventures. It’s an unwitting, or maybe deliberate homage to the rest of Eager’s work, and a fitting way to close out his children’s collection.
The children in Eager’s stories are readers, and the books themselves bear out the fact that reading begets reading. My younger daughter read “Knight’s Castle” in third grade, and it sparked her interest in reading ”Ivanhoe.” In third grade. To this day, she can tell you how to set up for a tournament, the fine details of being a Templar and the rules of courtly love. That was a fun summer. I wish we’d homeschooled and she could have gotten credit for it.
The books are available online, I checked, and in any library where the children’s librarian has enough sense to realize that a good book isn’t limited by its publication date.
Continued from left column
The books assume churchgoing, and they’re comfortable melding Betsy’s Baptist heritage, Tib’s German Lutheran church, and Tacy’s Catholicism. When Betsy and her sister Julia decide to join the Episcopal church in one of the high school books, it’s handled with understanding and grace.
While the stories are pre-feminism, they give each girl, then woman, the space to be who she is. The Amazing Joe Willard encourages Betsy to continue to write, because he knows it’s part of who she is. Tib is a career woman, designing windows for a big downtown store in Minneapolis, and nobody encourages her to marry just for the sake of marrying, although she eventually meets the man of her dreams. Tacy embraces home-keeping, but it’s her own choice and she’s magnificent at it.
And Betsy showed THIS little girl that it was possible to put words together to make sentences, and sentences to make paragraphs, and paragraphs to make pages and stories and books. Betsy, scribbling in a five-penny tablet in her tree house, was my first role model as a writer.
The series was reissued a few years ago and should be available online or in libraries.