Update about the passing of Stephen Hawking at end of post.
Since all of you are reading a library blog, I am assuming that all of you enjoy reading and understand how it can be a transformative experience. We can probably all remember one or two of our most favorite books from childhood- books that stick with us to this day and somehow seem like a pivotal experience in our childhoods. For me, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was one of those books. Originally published in 1962, it has become a modern classic that has maintained its popularity for over 50 years. In fact, it has retained its popularity so well that it has finally been made into a movie by director Ava DuVernay, which was just released this week. The release of this film made Ava DuVernay the first female African-American director of a film with a budget of over $100 million. It is fitting that a ground-breaking choice for director was made for such a ground-breaking book. This film commentary explains very eloquently why it is such an important film for girls in general, and girls of color in particular.
I have not seen the movie yet (I plan to soon), but I definitely have read the book, so beware that parts of the plot (but not the ending) are discussed here. I first read A Wrinkle in Time in elementary school, probably around 3rd grade, which I think was L’Engle’s intended age group audience. It is a science-fiction, coming-of-age novel about the battle of good versus evil on a universal scale, and the power of love and family over hate and fear. The main character, Meg Murry, is the middle-school aged child of two brilliant scientist parents. Her father is a theoretical astrophysicist, and as a consequence of testing a theory about the space-time continuum, he accidentally gets trapped on a distant planet, where the root of all evil (literally) comes from. Meg, her genius younger brother Charles Wallace, and a friend named Calvin all embark on a journey to save him. They are aided by three female personifications of astrophysical principles- Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. Drama and life lessons about the importance of family and good versus evil ensue. As A.O. Scott put it in his New York Times movie review, “The frustrations and injustices of youth can feel as vast as the cosmos. In Meg’s case, they literally are.” Despite the universal magnitude of her problems, Meg is still the endearing type of character to which any kid can relate.
In a memorable scene from the book, Mrs. Whatsit (played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie), explains to the children what a tesseract is. The verb form of tesseract- tesser- is how the children will travel across the universe. Since it is difficult to explain in words, Mrs. Whatsit and the book itself use a visual to explain, which I am including a photo of here (from my own personal copy of the book). In the book, a tesseract is a “wrinkle in time,” hence the title of the book. As Mrs. Whatsit explains, in theory, the shortest distance between two points is actually not a straight line. This would be a problem for the kids because as we all know, the universe is unimaginably huge. (To give you an idea of how huge and why visiting other planets is so hard, see this article about light years.) They would have no hope of rescuing Meg’s father if they could only travel in a straight line. Luckily, Mrs. Whatsit has a quicker method of travel via another dimension, which she explains to the kids in this memorable scene. In the book, the physical world (which we can see and touch) is 3 dimensional, time is the 4th dimension, and this phenomenon called a tesseract is the 5th dimension. A little Google research just now confused me, but it seems that in reality, the tesseract is actually the 4th dimension, not the 5th, and it’s usually pictured as a cube moving or expanding through space. (See also: Flatland, which I remember reading in a high school math class.) Regardless, it has to do with a jump through the space-time continuum, and it is how the kids are able to reach the evil planet Camazotz to rescue their father. (“Camazotz” is also an ancient Mayan bat-like monster that represented death.)
I did not study science or become a scientist as a result of reading this book- other subjects in school interested me more than math and science. However, this single scene caught my interest so much that I still remember it now, even though I have forgotten other plot details. When I first read this book was in the pre-Google, almost pre-internet era, and I did what all kids do when they have a question- I asked my parents what a tesseract was. I don’t remember what they said- they were familiar with the concept of other dimensions, but couldn’t explain it any better than I or the book could. However, this scene and memory is an example of the power of fiction- I didn’t become a scientist, but it did spark an interest in me in the larger concepts about the universe. Since that day, documentaries about the universe have always caught my attention. I remember that much later when I first heard about “wormholes” and how they can, in theory, connect two different universes, I thought, “Wow, maybe that’s what they were talking about in A Wrinkle in Time.” I’m sure that there are scientists out there now who were inspired by this book, and who learned from it that it is cool to wonder about the universe and question what is around you.
Librarians like to provide reading recommendations, and I have a great one for anyone who loved A Wrinkle in Time, but wonders what it would be like if written for a more grown-up audience. Last year, I read the Firebird Trilogy by Claudia Gray, and I could not put it down. It was fantastic. I was struck by how very similar it is to A Wrinkle in Time– I think that Gray must have been inspired by L’Engle, and that is not a bad thing. The main character in the Firebird books is also a teenage girl, but older than Meg- she is about to enter college. Her parents are also both brilliant theoretical physicists who have come up with a dangerous new theory about connecting multiple universes. The father in the Firebird books also goes missing, for similar reasons as in A Wrinkle in Time. The biggest difference is that since the Firebird books are for a slightly older (teenage and above) audience, they are a little edgier and there is some romance. It explores the same themes of love, family, and good versus evil, on a cosmic scale. In other words, what’s not to love?
Update- On March 14th 2018, a few days after the original publishing of this blog post, the world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking passed away after a decades-long battle with ALS disease. The parents in the novels described above all did what he did in real life. He was a pioneer in the study of everything discussed in this blog post- black holes, other dimensions, and the concept of a multiverse. His sense of humor, writing, and appreciation for life allowed him to connect with people on a personal level and open up these grand concepts for the general public to contemplate. While we all gaze up at the night sky with a sense of awe at the vastness of the universe, Stephen Hawking was probably the closest person on Earth to being able to grasp its mysteries, and he cared enough about this planet and the people on it to spend his lifetime explaining these mysteries to us. Although his passing leaves a gaping hole in the scientific community, there are already new generations of scientists and budding scientists who were inspired by him, just as there are many who were surely inspired in a similar way by A Wrinkle in Time.
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.” -Stephen Hawking