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.
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:
Here’s a tough one. Protagonists in fantasy or SF with glasses. They have to be wearing the glasses for real, not as a disguise that gets taken off at some point. And they can’t be given a “Cinderella” transformation into somebody cooler without glasses later on in the story. Why am I doing this list? Mostly because I’m one of those kids who grew up wearing glasses. And when the conversations go to talking about representation and how it matters, this is one of the ways it matters to me personally.
It’s hard to find glasses wearing characters taking center stage. Too often they’re relegated to the side-kick or brainy helper mode. The behind-the-scenes guy or gal. In rare circumstances they do get to play the protagonist, but too often those roles are stereo-typed. The protagonists are nerdy and clumsy or inept in some way. Or simply brainy and bookish and not considered traditionally attractive. It’s a tough message to break down. I’ve at least tried to find some representations amid the halls of speculative children’s books, but my options for this ten list were fairly slim.
The Girl With the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts (Scholastic, c1980)
My first book on this list is a science fictional title about a girl with telekinetic abilities and unusual silver eyes. Katie also is clearly described as wearing horn-rimmed glasses in the book. I’d always loved this book on so many levels, but I’m realizing now that in addition to everything else, there’s a significant excitement to the main character being a girl who wears glasses.
The BFG by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Puffin, c1982)
The book that prompted this list. See, I noticed the movie out and I realized I was trying very hard to determine if Sophie keeps her glasses through the whole movie. It seemed important to me. I know I loved the Quentin Blake illustration shown on the cover here, because there’s a blond girl in big glasses sitting fearlessly on the giant’s hand. Seriously, the kid in glasses gets to have the fantastical adventure and be brave and fearless!
A Wrinkle in the Time by Madeleine L’Engle (Yearling, c1962)
I had to go back and check for this one, but yup, Meg Murry wears glasses. It’s not evident on most of the covers (one of the reasons I chose this one) nor in the TV movie version, but it is the part of her description. Meg is the rather geeky girl that becomes the unlikely savior of her father and brother in an amazing trip across the universe via tesseract. Obviously one of my favorite books if you consider the name of this blog!
The Princess and the Frogs by Veronica Bartles, illustrated by Sara Palacios (Balzer & Bray, Expected Publication November 2016)
I love fractured fairy tales. And this picture book coming out in the fall provides a hilarious take on an old favorite. Our princess in this story wants a pet, not a prince. But every frog she finds inevitably turns into a prince when she kisses them, much to her frustration! On top of all that our princess wears glasses! I grinned when I saw the cover of this book because I have a young patron at my library (she’s 4) who got glasses in the last year and is so unsure about them. I can’t wait to tell her about this book!
Now You See It . .. by Vivian Vande Velde (HMH, c2004)
Wendy’s old glasses get broken, leaving her more blind than a bat. When she finds a pair of strange glasses that seem to help, she’s happy to have something that she can use. But these glasses see too well. They see things . . . that normally aren’t seen in the real world. These glasses have magic in them, and many creatures will do just about anything to gain possession of them! I can’t remember what happens with Wendy’s glasses at the end of the book, but this story not only has a glasses wearing protagonist, but makes the glasses the actual subject of the story!
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (Scholastic, c1997)
You might have noticed something about the previous five books on this list. They’re all female characters. It seems that while a protagonist with glasses is rare, a male protagonist with glasses is rarer still. Perhaps that’s one of the things that has so many kids responding to Harry. He’s an imperfect kid, with a scar and glasses–and yet he’s the hero of the whole story, the chosen one!
Shatterglass by Tamora Pierce (Scholastic, c2003)
I nearly forgot Tris! From the Circle of Magic Series, Tris is a main character in the first four books, and then in this title. But I chose this particular book and cover because it really shows an image of Tris, glasses, braided hair and all. Tris holds one of the more dangerous magics of her four friends, magic that works with the weather itself–wind, water, lightning. In this title she is far from home, helping to investigate a string of mysterious murders that have taken place in the city.
Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World) by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Dan Santat (Disney-Hyperion, c2010)
This first person POV SF picture book shows us what happens when an ambitious science fair project goes amok! Our narrator has built a giant robot for the school science fair, but she fails to take into account that the giant robot might go on a rampage. Our inventor runs home and creates a giant robotic toad to take out her robot. But will that be the end of the trouble? Our trouble-magnet inventor here is very clearly a girl with glasses! Gotta love it!
Alistair and the Alien Invasion by Marilyn Sadler, illustrated by Roger Bollen (Simon & Schuster, c1994)
Alistair, boy genius, is the protagonist of several speculative picture books. In this one, Alistair has to save the Earth from invading aliens, but can he do that and get his science project done in time? Our glasses wearing protagonist is pretty unflappable even in the most outlandish of situations. He’ll figure a way through!
Melvin Beederman Superhero: The Curse of the Bologna Sandwich by Greg Trin, art by Rhode Montijo (Square Fish, c2006)
Melvin Beederman is a rather inept fellow, but he still saves the day–as long as bologna isn’t involved that is! This silly send up to traditional comic book heroes is a great transitional reader for youngsters looking for that superhero flair but not ready for most of the comic book stories just yet. For my purposes, he’s wearing glasses! Unlike superman who takes his glasses off when he’s in his superhero persona, Melvin keeps his frames on!
You’ll notice something else about this list. There isn’t a whole lot of diversity apparent in these characters. I couldn’t come up with a single book featuring a non-white protagonist with glasses that fit my parameters. (With the possible exception of Oh No! Since she might be–I haven’t found info saying one way or the other.). So here’s where I need my readers to help. Comment below with any additional titles! (Remember, they’ve got to be the protagonists of the story!) But I’d love to add to this list!
Update 6/6/16–I found one to add!
The Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass (Scholastic, 2014)
Bakari Katari Johnson is a shy kid who just found a ring with magical powers that everybody wants! Check it out–I found an African American protagonist in an MG fantasy story wearing glasses!