You’re a girl whose father has gone missing and who just can’t seem to fit in anywhere. You don’t see yourself as pretty or smart or anything like that. You wear glasses and have braces and get in fights when other kids provoke you. But now strange forces are gathering, and they want you and your little brother to go on a quest across the universe to rescue your father . . .
Do you remember:
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1962)
It’s finally that time when I can take one of my favorite, Newbery award winning novels off the shelf and read it aloud to my son. I’ve planned to read it since he was born, but couldn’t be sure when he’d be ready. At nearly 8 years old, he seems to be ready.
I remember my own encounters with this story, way back when I was in fifth grade, devouring anything set before me with words. This was–startlingly different. I’d read fantasy books. I’d read science fiction works. But I’d never read anything that deftly combined the two into one breathtaking whole. I’d never read anything in science fiction or fantasy that had a character with glasses and braces like me. Meg was so much like me . . . except that her thing was math and mine was words. But we were both out of step with the ordinary, but not really at peace with the extraordinary either. Meg didn’t have superpowers that saw her through her adventure–she had only herself. And that was enough.
Reading this to my son is the first time I’m hearing the text aloud–and so it’s a reintroduction for me that’s made me realize several things. The first is that my beloved book has some startlingly dated word choices. The most notable of these is the use of the world “tramp” to describe a wandering homeless person who may or may not be a threat. I found myself reading over that word with some discomfort and having to explain its meaning to my son. The other word that came up a lot was moron, which is still used some times, but I found it painful when Meg used it to describe herself. There are other little things that date the book, of course. At over 50 years old, it hardly exists in a complete vacuum.
Still for all that it’s dated, that only colors the work so far. My best advice for new readers encountering this book? Get through the introductory three chapters–once you hit the fourth chapter, the words start to forge themselves into amazing narrative landscapes and story. Despite the opening line, I found by reading the book aloud that the author really hits her stride by the fourth chapter. Reading it aloud becomes easier, and more interesting. Once our characters are set on their journey, things just flow.
Out of all the books, this one remains my fast favorite. But the Time Trilogy, as it is often termed, is all excellent. Granted, the books may not be for everyone. L’Engle willingly and freely combines Christian mysticism with science concepts to come up with her own brand of story, something that may be uncomfortable for those favoring a stricter Christian interpretation or a purely science and fact approach to story. But I feel there’s lots of room for a middle ground. Stories do not have to fall into strict definition of genre in order to be great stories. Madeleine L’Engle was writing at a time when women writing science fiction at all was unusual. When having a female protagonist was far from the norm. And she made it exceptional enough to win the Newbery.
My son and I just got to Camazotz, so it’s hard times ahead for Meg and company. We’ll begin our battle of the Shadow tomorrow night.
Flashback Fridays: Of all the forces in the universe, the hardest to overcome is the force of habit . . .
You’re just a kid who sometimes has strange things happen to them. But this latest bit is sort of wild–there are dead people in the cemetery talking to you. They aren’t creepy or dangerous, they’re just ordinary people, except, well, dead of course . . .
Do you remember:
Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett (Corgi Childrens, c1993)
Johnny Maxwell is an odd kid whose family is going through troubling times. They live in a small town in the U.K. called Blackbury. There’s a cemetery in town, an old, mostly forgotten one that Johnny likes to wander by. But suddenly he sees dead people. And talks to them to. The dead in this cemetery aren’t frightening or anything–they’re just ordinary people who once lived in Blackbury. And they’re alarmed when they find out their cemetery is about to be destroyed in the name of progress and “Bright Futures.” They want Johnny and his friends to help.
And so begins a most unusual ghost story. Where ghosts teach the living about the power of history, memory and legacy and learn in turn that there’s more to life than death and cemeteries. And that sometimes it’s essential to break the rules. Sometimes habits are all that keep us pinned down.
Back in 1997 wandering around Oxford this was one of the very first Terry Pratchett books I encountered, and I still have a great deal of love and fondness for it. Johnny is pretty much every boy. He’s well-meaning, has some odd quirks and strange stuff happen to him, but he’s still pretty ordinary. He’s got his friends, and a family going through troubles that he’s trying to avoid. He’s not a chosen one or a secret heir. He’s just Johnny. But Johnny sees ghosts. His friends are disappointed they aren’t spooky zombies like you’d find in the Thriller video. But they get on board with helping him through yet another adventure. (Last time it was a video game that featured real aliens).
A lot of the residents of the cemetery are eager to talk to him and find out what’s gone on in the world since they died. All except for Mr. Grimm who constantly warns them about breaking the rules and doing things that are improper. Johnny slowly uncovers the history of the people buried in the cemetery–becoming more and more invested in their stories and what it means to Blackbury–the real Blackbury and not the gray town it’s becoming. He sees the real evil in this story:
Real dark forces… aren’t dark. They’re sort of gray, like Mr. Grimm. They take all the color out of life; they take a town like Blackbury and turn it into frightened streets and plastic signs and Bright New Futures and towers where no one wants to live and no one really does live. The dead seem more alive than us. And everyone becomes gray and turns into numbers and then, somewhere, someone starts to do arithmetic…”
It’s evil in the classic Sir Terry mode. The evil of negating humanity. The evil of treating people as things–that’s what Johnny is fighting. But while the kids are fighting to save the cemetery, the ghosts are realizing that the cemetery has grown too small for them. They are curious, they are wondering and interested and excited again. And so they finally break the rules and leave the boundaries of the cemetery. And they discover they were never meant to stay at all–that there is a beyond to explore and travel and continue in–and only fear and habit was holding them back. It’s something that reminds that every life has meaning, and that the past still matters, so long as it informs us in the present.
It’s a great book, and it inspired a TV miniseries in 1995. Sir Terry wrote two other books in the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy. The first was Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) and the third is J0hnny and the Bomb (1996) .
If you’ve never heard of Sir Terry Pratchett, I can only say I hope you will discover him. He is by far and away one of my favorite writers and has many titles for readers to discover. Some for children, and many more for adults. His quirky humor and dry observations are ultimately balanced by a sense of heart, profundity and poignancy that can turn a funny book into one that makes you tear up and cry–or realize why you’re alive.
Science fiction–it’s not just for chapter books! They may only make up a sliver of picture book titles, but there are still a fair number of them. A great way to share this genre with the younger audiences. I’ve done lists of these before, but just for fun I want to revisit the topic.
Alistair’s Time Machine by Marilyn Sadler (Simon and Schuster, 1986)
Marilyn Sadler’s Alistair series is sadly out of print, but these wild stories of a very ordered “boy of science” are charming and remembered fondly by many readers. Two of the stories were featured on Reading Rainbow episodes. Alistair is a very intelligent and pragmatic sort of boy to send on adventures. He’s also a rare protagonist in glasses!
June 29, 1999 by David Wiesner (Clarion 1992)
This author/illustrator is well known for the strange, the bizarre and the surreal. But this particular story features a science project that may–or may not–have gone awry! Our young scientist has sent vegetable plants up in balloons to study the affect of higher atmosphere. But are the giant plants that land back down on her town results of her experiment gone horribly wrong or something more extraterrestrial?
Company’s Coming by Arthur Yorinks (Knopf, 1988)
An utterly charming read about a suburban couple expecting company . . . who wind up with some outer space visitors they didn’t anticipate. But kindness and spaghetti will win the day. A great story for kids whether or not they love science fiction! Don’t miss the author’s other SF books: Tomatoes from Mars, and Company’s Going .
Robot Zot! by John Sciezka, illustrated by David Shannon (Simon & Schuster, 2009)
Alien invades earth kitchen! There’s adventure, danger, romance–all the things Zot is looking for. The illustrations magnify the hilarity of this over-the-top alien’s invasion. A great read aloud for youngsters just beginning to learn about science fiction.
Mars Needs Moms by Berkeley Breathed (Philomel, 2007)
A funny picture book that inspired a not so great movie. Breathed’s vocabulary rich story about a boy who has to rescue his mom from aliens who have kidnapped her is pretty fantastical–but still qualifies as science fiction. And it’s rare enough we feature moms in SF at all!
The Everything Machine by Matt Novak (Roaring Brook Press, 2009)
An apt fable of a planet where a machine does everything for the people of the community . . . until the day it breaks down and people learn how to do for themselves. Even when the repairman comes to fix the machine, the residents have learned a pointed lesson. A great book to inspire discussion and debate.
Jack and the Night Visitors by Pat Schories (Front Street, 2006)
A wordless story of a young boy and his dog (Jack) and an alien encounter. The boy tries to capture the aliens to keep them, but the aliens are not interested in staying. Nicely told through images, and a genuinely charming little book.
Girl builds giant robot for science project. Robot promptly goes on a rampage! This is a classic sort of science runs amok plot, with lots of action adventure styling for kids. Great to see a girl scientist in this plot line. There’s a second book featuring our science adventuress on another adventure: Oh No! Not Again! (Or How I Built a Time Machine To Save History) (Or at Least My History Grade).
Mr. Wuffles by David Wiesner (Clarion, 2013)
Yes, there are two Wiesner books on this list. I won’t apologize for that. This Newbery Honor is another wordless story by the author. Aliens have come to earth–bug sized aliens. And their spaceship has been damaged by a terrifying cat–the so titled Mr. Wuffles. The aliens find friendship and forge alliances with the bugs of the household who help them repair their ship. A charming case of close encounters that is classic Wiesner.
What Faust Saw by Matt Ottley (Dutton Juvenile, 1995)
There sure are a lot of pets encountering aliens! This poor dog witnesses aliens landing and skulking about everywhere, but his barking only angers the family into being annoyed with their pet. The aliens play an elaborate game of hide and seek with Faust causing the beleaguered hound no end of trouble!
I’ve two other Tuesday Ten lists of SF picture books you can find here: