When Léna Roy was 7 years old, her teacher read the first chapter of A Wrinkle in Time aloud to her second-grade class. After school, Léna ran to her grandmother’s house, which was around the corner from her school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, to finish the book on her own. She curled up in bed and devoured it. She felt just like the hotheaded, stubborn heroine Meg Murry, and took comfort in the fact that a flawed adolescent girl could save the world. “It was almost like your permission to be a real person,” Roy says. “You don’t have to be perfect.”
Millions of other adolescent girls (and boys) have made the same liberating discovery while reading A Wrinkle in Time. What’s different about Roy is that her grandmother happened to be Madeleine L’Engle, the book’s author, who revolutionized serious young adult fiction with her clever mash-up of big ideas, science fantasy and adventure—and a geeky girl action hero way ahead of her time.
Since its 1962 publication, Wrinkle has sold more than ten million copies and been turned into a graphic novel, an opera and two films, including an ambitious adaptation from the director Ava DuVernay due out in March. The book also kicked open the door for other bright young heroines and the amazingly lucrative franchises they appear in, from whip-smart Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books to lethal Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games. Leonard Marcus, author of the L’Engle biography Listening for Madeleine, says Wrinkle “set the stage for the reception of Harry Potter in this country.” Previously, he says, science fiction and fantasy were suitable for high-end British authors like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in Britain but in the States were relegated to pulp magazines and drugstore paperbacks.
Then came L’Engle, a 41-year-old writer who spent three months in 1959 writing the hard-to-categorize story that would become A Wrinkle in Time. While Meg Murry and her companions traveled through time and space to save her father, a scientist trapped by evil forces on a distant planet, readers had to wrap their minds around the fifth dimension, the horrors of conformity and the power of love. L’Engle believed that literature should show youngsters they were capable of taking on the forces of evil in the universe, not just the everyday pains of growing up. “If it’s not good enough for adults,” she once wrote, “it’s not good enough for children.”
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Publishers hated it. Every firm her agent turned to rejected the manuscript. One advised to “do a cutting job on it—by half.” Another complained “it’s something between an adult and juvenile novel.” Finally, a friend advised L’Engle to send it to one of the most prestigious houses of all, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. John Farrar liked the manuscript. A test reader he gave it to, though, was unimpressed: “I think this is the worst book I have ever read, it reminds me of The Wizard of Oz.” Yet FSG acquired it, and Hal Vursell, the book’s editor, talked it up in letters he sent to reviewers: “It’s distinctly odd, extremely well written,” he wrote to one, “and is going to make greater intellectual and emotional demands on 12 to 16 year olds than most formula fiction for this age group.”
When it debuted, not only was Wrinkle widely praised—“wholly absorbing,” said the New York Times Book Review—but it won the Newbery Medal, the most important award in children’s lit. “The almost universal reaction of children to this year’s winning book, by wanting to talk about it to each other and to elders, shows the deep desire to understand as well as to enjoy,” said Newbery committee member Ruth Gagliardo.