Thursday, February 9, 2012

There Is Such a Thing as a Tesseract

It was a dark and stormy night.

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraith-like shadows that raced along the ground.

The house shook.

Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook.

She wasn't usually afraid of weather. —It's not just the weather, she thought. —It's the weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of Meg Murry doing everything wrong.

I read a lot when I was a kid, and I mean a lot. But I still remember the feeling I got from reading A Wrinkle in Time. I was an odd duck, like Meg, and late elementary/junior high school was a difficult time for me. I just didn't fit. So reading the book was reassuring—here was someone like me, and she said the wrong things, and she got emotional like me, and yet, she was a hero. Not in a smooth and shiny way, but in a prickly, klutzy way, which I knew very well was the only way I would ever be any kind of hero.

That wasn't the only reason I loved the book, though. I was enchanted by the rest of the cast, too, particularly Charles Wallace and the three not-exactly-witches with the way-clever names. I loved the strangeness of the story, as well, the way it led me across the fold of a skirt to planets where beautiful beings lived, and terrifying ones.

Of course, IT was such a brazenly B-movie villain (even if I didn't know the term "B-movie" quite yet); I'm still asking myself just how it is that Madeleine L'Engle makes him/it work? She leads us up to that moment with those robotic kids playing in front of their poison cookie-cutter houses, that's how. And the mind-capture of Charles Wallace—shudder! L'Engle has a wonderful touch with details. I've never forgotten the disquieting softness of a father's beard and hair that have grown out as he stood trapped inside his futuristic cell.

Well. It's been 50 years since the book first come out. I can't remember where I first read the story, but Madeleine L'Engle had a very difficult time getting the book published. She sent it off to a couple of dozen publishers and they all turned it down, so she stuck it in a drawer and basically gave up. Then a friend of hers told her she knew John Farrar of Farrar Straus and Giroux. Please note that FSG did not have a children's division at the time. The friend passed the manuscript to Farrar and he loved it, so FSG basically started a children's division for L'Engle's book. The next year, when she won the Newbery, Madeleine went to a celebratory dinner and was approached by various editors saying, "Why didn't you send it to me?" Her answer, of course, was, "I did." They were astonished, but she had the rejection slips to prove it. (Part of this account appears in the commemorative edition's afterword.)

One interesting note: I've found that people (especially librarians) can debate endlessly over whether this book is science fiction or fantasy. It fits easily in both categories, though I suppose I lean a little towards science fiction, myself. At any rate, A Wrinkle in Time opened the door to a new kind of creativity in the children's SFF genre. (The art to the above left depicting Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who is by Eugene Eian Lee.)

As a participant in A Wrinkle in Time's 50th anniversary blog tour, I agreed to write a poem or two in honor of the occasion. (And yes, I will give a brazen shout-out to my forthcoming poetry book, Water Sings Blue, while I'm at it.) It was easy to decide to write a poem about Meg, but then I said half-jokingly on Twitter that I might write a poem about the boy with the ball, and the response was pretty positive. So I've written both. The second poem also attempts to answer the question my sister asked me last week when I told her about the post: "What happened to the rest of the people on Camazotz?" And by the way, in case you were wondering, the planet was named after a Mayan bat god associated with death, night, and sacrifice.


Sometimes I look down
at my feet as I walk
through dirt and gravel
and dead grass, stepping
and stepping, not getting
very far really.

The numbers line up
in my head like the students
in my class.

At lunch, who
will sit with me?

After school, which
one should I punch first?

Every morning, why
do I brush my hair
and go back?

There is no one who
will tell me what
to do or why
to do it.

All I am
is Meg walking down a street
to meet something terrible.

All I am
is Meg holding hands
with a small
wise-eyed brother.

All I am
is Meg.

The Boy with the Ball

It hurts, it hurts, it hurts
and then—
it stops. I drop the ball
(the thing that started it all).
But it is mine.
I pick it up again, put it
in my pocket.

Where before there were walls
without windows or doors.
I walk down a gray hall.

Up ahead, I see someone running
the other way.
No one comes.
No one yells at me.

I wander
till I find a vast space.
A brain pulses on a dais.
I feel unseen claws grasping.
This is the thing
that hurt me. I stand still.

Boy, you are one of mine,
the brain tells me. But its words
cannot hold me.
My heart skips. I stumble
and fall like a dropped ball.

I scramble up.
"No," I say. "I am broken."
That's what they told me.
(But I got up just now.)
I take the ball from my pocket
and throw it as hard as I can.
It makes a dull thunk.

I run out of the building,
past confused people
in dark suits. I run
to the street where my house is.
Children stand staring down
at red rubber balls
and jump ropes lying there
like dead snakes.

"Come on," I say,
and they follow me
up the hill, where I show them
how to climb a tree.

Meg and Charles Wallace, Calvin and Mrs. Whatsit—like Harriet the Spy and Charlie of chocolate factory fame, they will live on across many wrinkles of time, iconic, flawed, and lovable. Because Meg loves her little brother, and so, in spite of Meg's feeling of being all wrong, everything really is all right.

Here's the link to the Wrinkle in Time Facebook page and the list of 50 participating blogs (wow!).

The 50th Anniversary Commemorative edition has some extra features. It's the orange book shown at the top of this post on the right; the book at the top left is the paperback commemorative edition.

o Frontispiece photo*+
o Photo scrapbook with approximately 10 photos*+
o Manuscript pages*+
o Letter from 1963 Caldecott winner, Ezra Jack Keats*+
o New introduction by Katherine Paterson, US National Ambassador for Young People's Literature +
o New afterword by Madeleine L'Engle's granddaughter Charlotte Voiklis including six never-before-seen photos +
o Murry-O'Keefe family tree with new artwork +
o Madeleine L'Engle's Newbery acceptance speech

I will confess that this list came with no explanation for the various asterisks, so feel free to make up your own meaning for them. But you get the idea!

This post is linked to Poetry Friday (2/10), hosted by poet Laura Purdie Salas.

Also: I have the book with the yellow cover, 2nd up on the right. What about you? Which version matches
your memory of A Wrinkle in Time? Or did you have that turquoise one?


Linda B said...

How wonderful that you wrote poems to connect with this book. I have read several reviews of the book & wrote one myself a few weeks ago, and most of mine connected with finding the books as an adult & reading them with my daughter, finding such a lovely role model in Meg for her, as you seemed to do as well. I believe early adolescents would connect with your Tesseract poem, almost gearing up to face the challenges at school. And that final part of the poem about the boys, and climbing trees also connects in my experience to many students who are so structured that they have no time to climb. Lovely and disturbing all at once. (I own the second book in the list.) Thanks for the terrific review, & that special story about the publication!

Robyn Hood Black said...

Wonderful post and poems, Kate! What memories it evokes. I remember having to read the book as a young child and complaining (sci fi and fantasy weren't my favorite genres), and then, growing up and older, appreciating it in many new lights. And reliving again as my kids read it in school. The day Madeleine L'Engle died, I was a puddle of tears. Such a lovely force and spirit. I agree with Linda - you've really captured the points of view of kids in your poems here.

rockinlibrarian said...

Not in a smooth and shiny way, but in a prickly, klutzy way, which I knew very well was the only way I would ever be any kind of hero.

LOVE. That's poetry too.

I love that painting of the Mrs Ws halfway up, except that his Mrs Who looks more like my Mrs Whatsit and vice versa, if you put glasses on Mrs Who. I mean, the person he calls Mrs Whatsit. I almost want to photoshop glasses on that picture now so it can better match my head.

melissa @ 1lbr said...

Great poems! I was so happy to hear a story about someone who relates to Meg finding the book at just the right time. That makes my librarian heart happy :)

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post and superb poems, Kate! Thanks for sharing!

In fifth grade my teachers allowed me and my classmates to spend months adapting A Wrinkle in Time for the stage. I wrote the script, directed the show, and played Charles Wallace. My mother says it's because I *was* a sort of Charles Wallace back then. I guess I still am.

Steven Withrow

Brandy said...

So reading the book was reassuring—here was someone like me, and she said the wrong things, and she got emotional like me, and yet, she was a hero. Not in a smooth and shiny way, but in a prickly, klutzy way, which I knew very well was the only way I would ever be any kind of hero.

This is SO UTTERLY PERFECT. You rock.

And I love both poems, particularly the ball kid one. As I told you on Twitter, he fascinated my students endlessly. They always imagined he would do great and heroic things.

rockinlibrarian said...

I forgot to answer your question about the covers. The first edition I read was the original cover, but the color had faded from turquoise to this kind of puke green, and it was all worn and taped up and I thought it was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen. But I loved the book anyway. Then I bought the greenish paperback (second one down) from a school book order in 5th grade, which I also thought was one of the ugliest covers I'd ever seen. I always hid the cover when I read it, even if I was reading it by myself, because I didn't want to look at it! But that's the copy that has been reread over and over, which I at one point laminated with contact paper (clear, oddly enough-- I suppose I could have made my own drawing on white contact paper instead), and which just recently has been post-it-ed and underlined all through for my Year of the Tesseract post notes. I can do that, because at some point somebody bought me that hardcover on the bottom (which is also not beautiful, but isn't quite as ugly as some of the other covers), so I have a replacement if necessary, though I haven't actually READ that copy yet, it just sits pristinely on the shelf. I am definitely going to have to do a post on the covers eventually this year I think.

KateCoombs said...

Linda--Thank you! It's interesting to hear how different people come to the same beloved story. And I do think that for some 11- or 12-year-olds, walking down the street to school is pretty much as hard as walking down a street to face IT. Sad about the trees...

Robyn--How nice that you grew into the book, and I'm so pleased you like the poems and the post. Thanks!

Amy--I'm glad you like that bit! As for the book covers, I'm partial to the last one because it's by the Dillons and I really love their work. (I've always wanted to own the Narnia set they illustrated.) As the Queen of A Wrinkle in Time, you should definitely do a post on the covers! I noticed a lot of the illustrators were tempted to draw the flying centaur look of the 3 guardians.

Melissa--You're right! I've had that experience as a teacher (perfect book, perfect kid); there's nothing quite like it.

Steven--Great story! I think I'm probably still Meg in a lot of ways, too.

Brandy--Oh, thank you! And it's partly because of your Twitter comment that I went ahead with the boy with the ball poem. I had a great time bringing some resolution to the people of Camazotz, at least for myself. They seem rather abandoned at the end of AWIT. :)

Charlotte said...

Thanks for the poems!

All of the pictures of Mrs. Whatsit in her angelic centaur form give me the creeps! Especially the one where it has no arms.

laurasalas said...

These are beautiful, Kate. I love the ending especially of both poems. I, too, always identified with Meg.

I adore L'Engle's work (my younger daughter Madeleine was named partly in honor of her). I'm embarrassed that I never wondered myself what happened to the people of Camazotz.

Christina said...

What a beautiful post and a gorgeous blog! I am so happy to have stumbled upon it through Amazon of all places! You inspire me to re-read it and to explore your deep list of picture books!

KateCoombs said...

Thanks, Laura and Charlotte! Christina, I'm glad you like the blog--including the fun stuff in the archives.

Megs of the world, take heart!