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:
This list is purely subjective of course. And it’s purely of the moment. I invite all my readers to add their own titles to this list. But I thought it’d be fun to introduce some of my favorite female protagonists over the years.
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, translated by Florence Lamborn (Puffin, c1945)
I’ll kick the list off with this red-haired gal from Sweden. Pippi is outrageous, wildly nonconformist and an affront to right thinking adults everywhere. This super-strong little girl is not only capable of living on her own with her horse and monkey, she insists on it. Watching Pippi interact with the more staid society around her leads to hilarious results. She really is one of the first female superheroes of literature. Re-reading this book with my son, as a parent I find myself wincing at many things in this story–but those are some of the very things that make the story so magical and delightful for children.
Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede (HMH, c1990)
Cimorene is anything but a proper princess. She wants to learn how to cook, and do magic, and fight with a sword. But her parents simply want her to marry a very dull prince as a proper princess should. So Cimorene runs away and makes a deal with a dragon. She’ll be the dragon’s princess if the dragon will keep away the princes and let her do all the unproper stuff she wants. I added the Trina Schart Hyman cover here because it so beautifully captures the Cimorene (not sweet or elegant) and her relationship with the dragon. Lots of fun with fairytales turned on their heads. Check out the rest of the series if you enjoy this one!
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W. W. Denslow (HarperCollins, c1900)
It’s easy to forget, given it’s age and weight as a classic that this story contains one of the more forthright and impressive adventurers who’s ever crossed into a fairyland. Farm girl Dorothy mostly takes things in stride–from her quest to find the wizard, to her show down with the witch, and to her final journey home again. Think about how rare this was at the time to have a girl in that role (and not a princess). Then realize that unlike the movie, Dorothy’s journey was no dream, and she’ll return to Oz many more times throughout her life on other adventures. Baum’s extended series of books set in Oz don’t always feature Dorothy, but she’s an enjoyable character when she does appear.
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex (Disney-Hyperion, c2007)
When the aliens invaded earth and Gratuity “Tip” Tucci’s mom is taken away aboard an alien ship, Tip is left on her own. So she does what any self-reliant tween does heads out to steal a hovercar and find her mother–oh, and maybe save Earth from yet another alien invasion in the process. A fun and funny narrator, Tip makes this story of aliens come to life with hilarious observations and crazy shenanigans. In the end it’s a darned good SF story too.
Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (Atheneum, 1983)
Anyone who knows me by now probably has some notion that this series is bound to land on a list like this. Seriously, Alanna changed my life. This twin who disguised herself as a boy to become a knight, then goes on to prove herself and become a champion to the kingdom, well, up until then I’d never seen a female character in a sword and sorcery story succeed as hero by being the warrior. Alanna is a stubborn, hot-tempered gal who wants things her way–even if that way is a challenge. Her struggles to both succeed as a fighter and to figure out how to accept herself formed the backbone of my fantasy reading as a tween.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, c2009)
Minli is a poor girl who works hard to survive each day with her family, but she loves her father’s fantastic stories that he shares with her. Stories of magic and adventure and strange places. When she sets a goldfish free, she doesn’t imagine it will send her on a quest far from home. Along the way she will meet and befriend different creatures, and have to use her wits to win. Combining ancient Chinese myths with a girl’s magical adventure story, this is a fantastic read aloud to share with your family.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow, c1986)
I could hardly have this list without including Sophie. Poor, elder sister Sophie who is told her life will be the dullest since she is the eldest. A girl who is quiet and has mostly accepted her lot in life, until she is cursed. In a case of mistaken identity, Sophie is cursed by a witch and turned into an old woman. Horrified by this, and not wanting to face her family, Sophie decides to seek out the nefarious wizard Howl. Being old gives Sophie a new latch on life, and she embraces the chance to be as stubborn and cantankerous as she wants. Sophie has a magic all her own, and with it she might cause the wizard Howl to lose his life . . . or might be his one chance at saving it.
Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall (HarperCollins, 2015)
Alice Dare is being sent to Mars with a shipload of other children so that they may be kept safe and train to one day fight the aliens that have invaded Earth. When all the adults on Mars go missing, there’s soon trouble–and Alice and her friends find themselves on the run out in the not-so-friendly Martian terrain. Alice is wry and funny as she tells her story about how she and her friends wind up bringing about a peace with the alien invaders and saving both races from an even greater threat. Hilarious SF adventure with several great female characters to cheer on!
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste (Algonquin Young Readers, Expected Publication April 2015)
Corinne La Mer is a fearless and strong-hearted girl living on an island in the Caribbean. Unlike so many others, she’s not afraid to venture into the dark forest. At least she wasn’t until a Jumbie followed her out! Now that Jumbie has designs on her father and on the village, and Corinne must come to accept her own lineage and decide where her loyalties lie. In the end that decision is not so simple. This spooky fantasy tale won me over the first time I read it, I hope others will enjoy discovering Corinne much as I did.
The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (HarperTrophy, c2003)
If you’ve never encountered Tiffany Aching, I hope you will soon at your next opportunity. A girl of intelligence, determination and heart, Tiffany finds herself to be the hero of the story, even if others don’t want to acknowledge it. This is just the first book in an ongoing series about Tiffany and her journey from girlhood to womanhood and becoming a witch. Sir Terry handles it all brilliantly in my opinion. “Yes! I’m me! I am careful and logical and I look up things I don’t understand! When I hear people use the wrong words, I get edgy! I am good with cheese. I read books fast! I think! And I always have a piece of string! That’s the kind of person I am!”
So there you have it! Please share your favorites in the comments!