I don’t know about you, but I’m excited about the new movie version of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. Excited and nervous, the way I am every time one of my favorite books is turned into a movie.
Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time comes out March 9, and I’m really hoping it’ll be good.
I’m not sure how I feel about Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Whatsit, but overall I’m loving the non-traditional casting. Protagonist Meg Murray is a person of color, the Happy Medium is played by Zach Galifianakis, and the magical beings who take the children on their interstellar adventure are played by three diverse and super famous women: Witherspoon, Mindy Kahling, and Oprah. (Yeah, freaking Oprah.) So that’s pretty cool.
In preparation for the movie, I decided to revisit A Wrinkle in Time, a book I had already read more times than is probably normal.
Completed in 1960, L’Engle says the manuscript was rejected by at least twenty-six publishers because it was “too different.” It finally found a home in 1962 with the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and it went on to win the Newberry Medal along with many other honors. A Wrinkle in Time also became the first book in the Time Quintet, a series of novels L’Engle wrote about the Murry and O’Keefe families.
So anyway, what can we kidlit writers glean from this classic novel? Glad you asked! Here are five lessons writers can learn from Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
(By the way, if you haven’t read the book you might want to stop reading this post because there are almost certainly spoilers ahead.)
(And also by the way, were you aware that there is a graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time, illustrated by Hope Larson? I haven’t read it, but I think this is just the sort of story that would be AMAZING as a graphic novel.)
*This post contains a few Amazon affiliate links*
1. Don’t be afraid to “write up”
Don’t assume that just because you’re writing for children you need to dumb down your language, your ideas, or your themes. Though the suggested age range for A Wrinkle in Time is 10 to 14, L’Engle uses quite sophisticated language. Just take a look at the very first paragraph:
It was a dark and stormy night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.
Just as playing a sport with someone better than you can help you improve, reading something a little above their level can help kids increase their vocabulary and become better readers. Plus, there’s nothing kids hate more than being talked down to.
Not only does L’Engle give her kid readers lyrical and adult-like prose, she also trusts them with some adult-like ideas and themes such as conformity, the fifth dimension, and good versus evil.
2. Give your protagonist flaws
No one is perfect, so don’t forget to give your protagonist some real flaws. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg is stubborn, impatient, impulsive, quick-tempered, and insecure. And with her glasses, braces, and unruly hair, she’s flawed (or at least she thinks so) in the looks department, too.
In many novels, the protagonist must overcome their weaknesses in order to reach their goal. In A Wrinkle in Time, however, Meg’s flaws are actually what help her defeat IT and save her little brother’s life. Instead of completely overcoming her flaws, she realizes that her greatest weaknesses can also be her greatest strengths. Her stubbornness makes her strong, her impatience and impulsivity come from passion. And, most importantly, despite her flaws, her family loves her, and she loves them. In the end, it’s love that saves the day.
One of the things I think works so well about A Wrinkle in Time is that Meg is so deeply flawed. She’s someone we can identify with, and hopefully she helps kid readers realize that one doesn’t have to be perfect or “fit in” in order to be loved.
3. Give your story a classic and well-paced start
Leo Tolstoy famously said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”
A Wrinkle in Time is both. First, strange Mrs. Whatsit shows up at Meg’s house in the middle of the night, in the middle of a wild storm. As it turns out, Mrs. Whatsit and her friends have arrived in order to take Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and her new friend Calvin on a journey across time and space.
The pacing of A Wrinkle in Time is on point. In the middle of Chapter One, Mrs. Whatsit shows up. I would call this the inciting incident – what gets the story started.
At the end of Chapter 3, Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are whisked off into space with Mrs. Whatsit and her friends. I would call this the climax of Act One. According to Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat, the act one climax is when “the main character enters an “upside down world” where they’re completely out of their element.” In Meg’s case, her “upside down world” is strange planets in other galaxies!
My copy of A Wrinkle in Time is approximately 200 pages. The children begin their intersteller journey around page 50: one-fourth of the way through the novel. And that, my friends, is what’s called good pacing. If it takes you longer than one-fourth of your novel to get to Act 2 and the real meat of your story, you’re probably spending too long getting your story started.
4. Give your story a turning point
At the story’s beginning, your protagonist should have a goal or desire that makes her take action. In Meg’s case, she wants to find her father. As your character reaches for her goal, increasing obstacles are put in her way. And then comes a midpoint, or twist. Often at this turning point, one of a few things happens:
- The protagonist realizes her goal is not what she thought or not what she wants.
- The protagonist realizes she will need to change her plan of action.
- The protagonist gives up her old goal in place of a new one.
I’ll give you a classic example first. In The Wizard of Oz, the turning point is when Dorothy and her friends reach the Wizard (their goal), and realize that he won’t help them unless they kill the Wicked Witch of the West (which then becomes their new goal and new plan of action).
Similarly, in A Wrinkle in Time, the turning point happens when Meg finds her father:
She had been so certain that the moment she found her father everything would be all right. Everything would be settled. All the problems would be taken out of her hands. She would no longer be responsible for anything.
And instead of this happy and expected outcome, they seemed to be encountering all kinds of new troubles.
Meg reaches her goal but realizes it’s not what she thought. She saved her father, but in the process they had to leave Charles Wallace behind, in the grips of the terrible IT. At this point Meg realizes her father is not all-powerful, and she can’t depend on him to fix everything. Now she has a new goal: to save Charles Wallace. And she must do it all by herself.
5. Make your characters memorable
Even if it’s been awhile since you read A Wrinkle in Time, I’m sure you remember five-year-old genius Charles Wallace and redheaded Calvin O’Keefe with his freckles and too-short pants. Not to mention Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. I LOVE the portrayal of these three magical ladies:
Mrs. Whatsit is a comical, roly-poly eccentric:
“How did you know this was Charles Wallace’s house?” Meg asked.
“By the smell.” Mrs. Whatsit untied a blue-and-green paisley scarf, a red-and-yellow flowered print, a gold Liberty print, a red-and-black bandanna. Under all this, a sparse quantity of grayish hair was tied in a small but tidy knot on top of her head.
Bespectacled Mrs. Who speaks in quotations (because she “finds it so difficult to verbalize.”):
The plump little woman beamed at him. “Why, Charlsie, my pet! Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point. Fench. Pascal. The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing.”
And Mrs. Which, the oldest, wisest and most mysterious of the three, who looks like a Halloween witch (when she bothers to materialize), and speaks in a “sharp, strange voice:”
There was a faint gust of wind, the leaves shivered in it, the patterns of moonlight shifted, and in a circle of silver something shimmered, quivered, and the voice said:
“I ddo nott thinkk I will materrialize commpletely. I ffindd itt verry ttirinngg, andd wee hhave mmuch ttoo ddoo.”
In my opinion, these are some of the best and most memorable characters literature has to offer. I sincerely hope the Disney movie does them justice!
What do you think about A Wrinkle in Time? What can it teach us about writing? And are you looking forward to the new movie version?
Like this post? Read more of my Great Children’s Literature Study posts!