“. . . one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be.”
– Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle In Time.
When I was a kid, growing up in the 60′s, I didn’t read many children’s books. P.D. Eastman, of course, whom I liked better than Suess, some of the Little Golden Books, and later, the Hardy Boys. Frank and Joe, I think their names were. I have no memory of either of my parents reading to me, ever. It may have happened, must have happened, but I can’t recall it. I was the youngest of seven, born in 1961, and bed time wasn’t the hour-long ritual it’s become for so many kids today, with reading and talking and snuggling and sharing, etc. When I was a kid, it was more like, “Good night. And don’t forget to brush your teeth.”
The words that formed my reading habit came from the sports pages of The New York Daily News and The Long Island Press. I still maintain that my writing style, such as it is, was probably more influenced by Dick Young than anybody else: I faithfully read his column for many (formative) years. I also remember, as I reached my middle grade period, talking to my older brothers and sisters about books. They were readers, all of them, and loved Bradbury and Vonnegut and Brautigan and Robbins, so I picked up those books. I have a vivid recollection of writing a book report in 7th grade on any book I wanted. I chose Anthem by Ayn Rand, probably because it was a slenderest paperback on the family bookshelf.
I also read sports biographies, being an ex-boy, and still hold a special fondness for Go Up for Glory Bill Russell. It hit me like a thunderbolt, and for a time I was determined to grow into a very tall black man who’d willingly pass up a shot in order to set a fierce pick and then gladly roll into the paint, looking for the put-back.
Anyway, I basically missed the entire canon of children’s literature. I didn’t read Where the Wild Things Are until I worked at Scholastic as a junior copywriter in 1985, hauling in $12,500 a year, thank you very much. These days I still try to fill in the holes, though I’ll admit it: I love adult literature. After all, I’m an adult. Those are the books that lit my fuse. I am not giving up my grown-up books.
Now, about A Wrinkle In Time. I liked it. Some parts — the first few chapters, especially — I really, really admired. Other parts — after the tessering, and into the full-blown fantasy — I didn’t care for as much. It reminded me of the original Star Trek series (my brothers loved Star Trek and we watched it religiously). In sum: Dated, kind of corny, a little obvious, but entertaining and fast-paced and intelligent and provocative, too. There’s a quality to the book, a beating heart that you seldom find in most books, and after a while the beating of your own heart seems to match it, thump for thump, and book and reader are one. It must have been ground-breaking at the time, I suppose, especially for the targeted audience. Today it reads a little like cliche, perhaps because it’s been so idolized and mimicked over the decades.
The problem: I’m not twelve anymore. And that’s what I wished for while I was reading the book. I wished I could have read it as a kid, experienced it with youthful eyes and heart. I’d bet the concept of “IT” might have blown me away, as opposed to now, when it feels too familiar and hackneyed. Very B-movie. So my appreciation comes from a distance; even that word, “appreciation,” feels cold and analytical and, I’m afraid, exactly right. I understand that it is widely considered one of the all-time greats of children’s literature, but I did not love the book on a visceral level; it didn’t speak to me. Not across so many years and these wrinkles in time on my face. I feel bad about that, like somehow I’ve let down the home team. But there it is, I said it.
I was born in 1961; L’Engle’s book was published in 1962. We should have grown up together, thump for thump, beat for beat. But, alas, we didn’t. And I think that was the main difficulty.
A few random lines I liked . . .
* But it was still not possible to think about her father without the danger of tears.
* “Why must everything happen to me?” she demanded of a large teddy bear.
* Mrs. Whatsit tugged at her second boot. “I said,” she grunted, shoving her foot down in, “that there is” — shove — “such a thing” — shove — “as a tesseract.” [Note: I read that sentence over and over, marveling at the punctuation.]
* “Maybe I don’t like being different,” Meg said, “but I don’t want to be like everybody else, either.”