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Remembering L'Engle

Sixty years ago in October, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time won the prestigious Newbery Medal. But I must admit: My youngest daughter’s hunger for the next good book prompts my review. (In my view, “good” books whet the appetite for more while shaping appetites in general.) She had just finished her major introduction to fantasy. I wondered: What could introduce her to science fiction? I foggily remembered forays into the world of Meg Murry and her brothers: space and time travel, otherworldly creatures, challenging scenarios. Over three decades since my first reading, how would L’Engle’s work stand up to mature scrutiny?

Gazing down at our edition, I drew a blank at books four (Many Waters) and five (An Acceptable Time). My ravenous reader, artistic middle daughter, could not come to my aid. Apparently, the asymmetrical title font had proved too great an impediment. While poring over publication information and doing the math, I realized: Madeleine L’Engle passed away 16 years ago in September. She released her second book, my childhood favorite—A Wind in the Door, 50 years ago. I also learned Wrinkle had been on the banned book list. As with many books that explore reality through fiction rather than clearly communicating biblical orthodoxy, L’Engle’s work was too religious for some and not enough for others. The time seemed right for a review.

I immediately discerned ideas I would name as “very good” for shaping children’s thinking. L’Engle presents her readers with the challenges of post-modern culture and adds a sprinkle of the fantastical to maintain youthful appeal. Book one approaches a dystopian possibility along the lines of Brave New World without descending to despair. Themes of science, faith, and philosophy make the Time Quintet relevant to our time. Refreshingly, L’Engle makes a clear distinction between good and evil—and shows her characters learning the difference.

If you haven’t read the series but are willing to take my word, let me time-travel to the conclusion. I recommend the quintet as: 1. fiction for independent readers 10 and up (the prose and subject matter mature with readers and deserve adult oversight); 2. a read-aloud for families or classrooms with children of diverse ages (8-15). L’Engle’s content supplies ample discussion material.

Wrinkle particularly suits older elementaries: Characters wrestle with emotions, academic struggles, fitting in, and relational conflict. They keen for the wholesomeness of home and childhood while propelled into exciting adventures with wide-ranging impact. Stories like Wrinkle nurture children’s souls amidst the joys and challenges of growing up. They recognize the truth of themselves in such fiction, finding they’re not alone. Wind continues similarly, with characters learning the world-altering nature of sacrificial love.

Children engage in imaginative play to learn the reality of our world. L’Engle’s Time Quintet offers similar fodder for a child’s mind as Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. While Lewis serves mainly theological allegory on which children may cut their teeth, L’Engle offers a smorgasbord of subjects: She plays with physics, biology, math, history, philosophy, language, theology, and myth, inviting children to play and learn too. This makes her work an asset to the classroom.

Note: L’Engle came from Episcopalian heritage and held the controversial view of universal salvation. In her own words, “All will be redeemed in God’s fullness of time, all, not just the small portion of the population who have been given the grace to know and accept Christ. All the strayed and stolen sheep. All the little lost ones.” Though holding to this heresy, L’Engle did not descend to apostasy. Her work points to the character and nature of God and man, and man’s need for redemption. L’Engle details the restorative work He has given man by His Spirit, welcoming children into that work. As an adult, I’m hooked more by this than by my original nostalgia.

In book five, she makes a clear and winsome gospel presentation. Her otherwise light touch on matters of faith garners a broader audience, including those outside Christianity.

A few quotes struck me:

The phrase “whistling in the dark” describes her characters’ response to external threats and pressures (like nuclear war). It gained poignancy as I considered daughters no. 1 and 2 and their Gen Z peers’ use of memes to make light of heavy topics. They juxtapose the serious with the playful or surreal in order to “defang” it—humor pushing back the dark. The books provide categories to understand juvenile coping mechanisms amidst the troubles of our times. Like most good literature, it forced me to look honestly at myself, revealing my melancholy tendencies. L’Engle challenges me to cultivate joy and hope—to “laugh at the time to come.” (Proverbs 31:25)

The Murry parents’ response to the chaos of the age— “If there is to be any peace or reason, we have to create it in our own hearts and homes,” (A Swiftly Tilting Planet)—emphasizes how to come alongside our kids. Shaping our surrounding culture begins with shaping our home environments and our children’s hearts.

Lastly, from Swiftly: “You human beings tend to want good things to last forever. They don’t. Not while we’re in time.” We often express our longing for final restoration in efforts to make the good of now last. Let us not miss the hope of the best yet to come, willingly embracing time and its limits.

The Time Quintet is not perfect. I have read tighter juvenile literature with cleverer twists. But if you too are searching for a book that stretches the imagination, stokes faith, and prompts questions and discussions about God and His world, I recommend you look back with me in time and remember L’Engle.