Most books feature ordinary children to whom unusual things happen, or perhaps a character who turns out to be extraordinary in a generic sort of way (they are the lost prince, or a witch, or have a gift of talking to animals or seeing ghosts). But these characters are usually not, in and of themselves, different.
Eccentric children are a disproportionate percentage of avid readers, and they are starved for books about kids like them: intelligent, emotionally intense, hyper-imaginative, socially awkward, interested in things that are uncool, or other varieties that don’t fit in. Many of these characters would today be recognized as neuro-diverse.
In the Books for Odd Children category, I’ll be discussing books that feed this need.
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In A Wrinkle in Time, the main character, Meg Murry, is highly intelligent but awkward and plagued with self-doubt. Her parents are both research scientists, and her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, is a such an oddball genius that nobody knows what to make of him. Meg and Charles Wallace, together with a neighbor boy Calvin who is also unusually intelligent, are sent on a mission by three witch/angel/spirit-guides to rescue their missing father, who has gotten caught up in an interplanetary disaster that combines physics and religion.
It’s stunning how many kids of a certain age were gripped with a fervor for this book. (I’m speaking of earlier generations, before the renewed interest from the movie, back when the book was passed along by word-of-mouth.) It was the first to portray, in detailed realistic terms, a family of extraordinarily gifted individuals; and not the idealized heros of series novels, good at everything and popular and beautiful besides. These are real people with weaknesses as well as strengths, and real problems that are sometimes a direct result of their gifts. In addition, the reader is taken seriously by the author and invited into the world of large ideas. Young teens and pre-teens are expected, for example, to wrestle with the idea of folding space. There were certain readers who had been waiting all their lives for this kind of thing, and when it appeared, they struck like jaguars dropping from trees.
Another reason this book is such a stand-out is the seriousness of vision that L’Engle brought to her world-building. This was driven by her religious convictions, in a way similar to C.S. Lewis’s work, and one feels the depth of it whether or not one agrees with the beliefs.
A final point in the book’s favor is the strong plot at its core. The three children are taken to a planet where everyone is under the control of a being called IT, and six-year-old Charles Wallace arrogantly decides he is strong enough to defeat it. He is wrong, and though they succeed in rescuing the father, they lose Charles Wallace. Meg’s love for Charles Wallace turns out to be the one kind of power that IT cannot understand or combat, and it is this power that effects the final rescue.
Unfortunately, this material only makes up about a third of the book. The rest of it is (sotto voce) pretty bad. The plotting in this other two-thirds is loose and saggy, with endless passages devoted to quasi-philosophical, quasi-religious lecturing. The only way to account for the book’s raging popularity is that, in spite of its flaws, it fed readers who were not finding what they needed anywhere else.
It should also be mentioned that some of L’Engle’s books tip over into a kind of cultural snobbism that is distasteful. (This essay from the New Yorker explains a great deal about L’Engle and why her writing was both so amazing and so frustratingly awful.) Her first children’s book, Meet the Austins, is one example, particularly with its restored chapter “The Anti-Muffins,” which some earlier editor had wisely deleted.
L’Engle shares this fault with a few other highly lauded 20th century children’s authors, including Eleanor Cameron in her later books such as A Room Made of Windows and Court of the Stone Children, and Elizabeth Enright in her Melendy books. (Indeed, L’Engle’s Meet the Austins seems to owe a great deal to the second and third Melendy books.) In such books, one gets the impression that the author considers their characters to be not just different from regular children, but better. Their unusual talents and interests are uniformly ones that are considered “cultured,” such as classical music or modern art. These characters seem to spring less from the author tapping into the wellspring of quirkiness, and more from the author’s anxieties about being the right sort of person.
Despite these flaws, there are countless middle-aged adults walking around today who will never ever forget what A Wrinke in Time did for them.