12 December 2006

More Wrinkles about A Wrinkle in Time

Back in September I wrote about the legend of how A Wrinkle in Time came to be published, and how much publishing has changed since then. Here are some more thoughts about that book's initial reception.

Powell's shares the "Special Message" from Madeleine L'Engle printed in the book's recent paperback editions, and in it she discusses what she perceived as a difficult path to publication. She wrote:

A Wrinkle in Time was almost never published. You can’t name a major publisher who didn’t reject it. And there were many reasons.

One was that it was supposedly too hard for children. Well, my children were 7, 10, and 12 while I was writing it. I’d read to them at night what I’d written during the day, and they’d say, “Ooh, mother, go back to the typewriter!”

A Wrinkle in Time had a female protagonist in a science fiction book, and that wasn’t done. And it dealt with evil and things that you don’t find, or didn’t at that time, in children’s books.
Now anyone who's been in publishing for a while knows that the fact that an author's own children or other relatives like a book carries no weight with editors. L'Engle, a published novelist, would have known that as well as anyone. (Surely someone had told her something like, "My children love our old family stories. Won't you recommend them to your agent?")

A book one's children love could be a good book, or they could be good children, eager to support their beloved parent. The book could speak to all children of those ages, or it could speak a special family language. That doesn't mean there aren't relatives ready to rip a story apart because of different tastes or honest criticism or some Freudian resentments. It simply means that editors can't know whose kids fall into what category, so "My kids like it a lot" is meaningless to them. (The same rules apply to parents.)

As for L'Engle's next two reasons, they really boil down to the fact that A Wrinkle in Time was a revolutionary book. It broke the widespread assumptions and expectations of its era. It came out in 1963, basically the last year of the 1950s--before the feminist movement, before the youth culture, before the counterculture, before widespread interest in non-western beliefs and innovative spiritual seeking. It's very hard for a book to be both truly revolutionary and a good commercial bet.

I find it significant that the 1963 Newbery committee balanced out L'Engle's rules-breaking science-fiction fantasy with not one but two undeniably serious and traditional Honor Books:
  • Thistle and Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland, by Sorche Nic Leodhas (pseudonym of Leclaire Alger)
  • Men of Athens, by Olivia Coolidge
Both those titles are out of print now. The first made The Brookeshelf's "Forgotten Books" list last month. The latter has earned one comment at Amazon. They basically reflect a world of traditionalist children's literature that A Wrinkle in Time helped wipe away.

1 comment:

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