A Wrinkle in Time
When I was in middle school my parents divorced and I became quickly indoctrinated in the ways of visiting the non-custodial parent (my dad). Because he lived four and a half hours away we didn't do the every other weekend thing. But on longer school breaks, especially summer, he would come pick me up and I'd go interrupt his life for a brief time. Mostly he'd just drag me along to wherever his normal life took him. So it was that I was hanging out in a bowling alley arcade and flirting with a boy who was probably in a similar situation and likewise flirting with me. In between Ms. Pac-Man battles this blond-haired Jimmy suggested I should read "A Wrinkle in Time". Suddenly it became a priority! I read it, and enjoyed it, although a lot of it went over my head. The main character, Calvin, has been eternally etched in my memory as looking like Jimmy. (In fact, I was quite surprised in reading this time that Calvin is actually red-haired.)
In high school I read it again and in my 30's I read it to my oldest two in their late elementary years. So this book has always held a fond spot in my heart. It is one of the few series that I hold such high regards for that it is a permanent part of my small book collection. (I read a lot but I don't maintain a large personal library.) I do not consider myself a science fiction fan but definitely consider this book a work of science fiction and enjoy contemplating its possibilities.
So all this to say - I was very excited when this was the next book up on the Newbery list. My 8y6m son right away asked if it was about time travel as he surmised from the title. Indeed it is and this made him excited too because he enjoys time travel books like the Magic Tree House, Dinosaur Cove and the Time Warp Trio.
The initial story was okay and I read slow enough and used different voices so that he kept up well. But once the time travel (or tessering) began - he couldn't keep up and soon lost interest. The vocabulary is advanced - especially in the use of very descriptive imagery.
On pg. 43 a young boy wants to hear Genesis as a bedtime story and as you get deeper into the story there are many Biblical similarities. But from the beginning there are a few things which may be just too forthcoming for young readers. Such as on pg. 16 when the highly-intelligent pre-schooler Charles says, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." I guess that's what happens when you have two highly-intelligent scientists for parents. However, in addition to intelligence they have installed plenty of manners and good behavior in their children. Overall I believe the characters to be adequate role-models.
The family stays strong and united during the extended absence of Mr. Murray. The townspeople may gossip and spread rumors but the family only grows closer as they hold their father in their hearts. Initially the children do not know the full reason for the absence.
Meg, the central female character, doesn't have as strong of loyalty to herself as she does to her father. In fact, on pg. 47 Meg says she hates herself.
Not very far into the book two of the four Murray children and one friend are called to go help rescue Mr. Murray. To aid in their endeavor, three female characters arrive, almost like a fairy godmother out of a Disney film but with three being more obviously symbolic of the trinity. Each of the three has a unique quality or feature. One of them quotes a lot of old wisdom in other languages. The foreign line is always in italics and is followed with a direct English translation, also italicized and includes the source. I suppose this could seem odd, even to older readers who aren't familiar with the sources or languages but only as a minor distraction with no direct impact on following the story.
In addition to these three there are magical creatures and the children are taken to consult a Medium, complete with a crystal ball. In the whole scheme of the story it is a minor part which I'd actually forgotten about until I reviewed my bookmarks. On the opposite end of the spectrum, they talk about previous fighters against evil in the universe and mention Jesus as one of earth's greatest fighters. (pg. 82) On pg. 85 the Medium and one of the three speak symbolically of Jesus when she says, "A star giving up its life in battle with the Thing. It won...But it lost its life in the winning."
The three ladies have a gift of seeing into the essence of someone and before they send the children into the battle, they caution them about how their personalities will help or hinder them. For example, they tell Charles to "beware of pride and arrogance, ..., for they may betray you." (pg. 94)
On the planet Camazotz, the evil force that they fight against is referred to as IT. When the book was written in the '60's, when I read it in the '80's and to my children in the '90's IT was "it". When I read it in 2014 my inclination was to say the letters separately as if they were some sort of computer division.
For a while it seems like there is a computer at the heart of everything - certainly an idea ahead of its 1960's time.
Maybe that is the ultimate pun - having a book about time travel involving technology ahead of its time.
As the story goes on IT is described as a big brain. IT tries to gain power through mind control.
The town they visit is a highly controlled environment. Charles falls victim to the mind control and becomes IT's pet, explaining to his sister, "We let no one suffer. It is so much kinder simply to annihilate anyone who is ill. Nobody has weeks and weeks of runny noses and sore throats. Rather than endure such discomfort they are simply put to sleep." (pg. 130)
I include this passage as an example of mature topics that are included within the pages. It is by no means a dark book - on the contrary I find it warm and encouraging at the right maturity level.
Mr. Murray gives a beautiful explanation on pg. 154 when he says he finally gave into the mind control because he was so tired and began to believe he was crazy but then his children showed up and renewed his hope and faith.
Along with elevated topics, some of the theories and explanation require a bit more experience than elementary school affords - like explaining how time travel occurs by rearranging matter. Also MOST kids in elementary school don't experience the pain of being labeled as different to the degree that older students do. This makes it a great book for middle schoolers who almost always experience, to some degree, feelings of self-conciousness and lack of self-confidence. Charles, the pre-schooler of advanced intelligence tells his sister Meg on pg. 131:
On Camazotz we are all happy because we are all alike. Differences create problems. ... you know that's the reason you're not happy at school. Because you're different.
I'm different, and I'm happy, Calvin said.
But you pretend that you aren't different. ...
Maybe I don't like being different, Meg said, but I don't want to be like everybody else, either.
I can certainly understand why this book was an award winner with all the love and support for family as well as the personal growth aspects, however, it's not all sunshine and roses. After Mr. Murray is rescued and they leave Camazotz, Meg gets injured during the tessering. As she is recovering she is very belligerent towards her father. It is implied that the uncharacteristic behavior is a result of the injury but the implication could be missed and unsupervised readers may not make all the connections. At one point Meg says they are stupid for not asking for help. The beast does explain, "The child is distraught. Don't judge her harshly. She was almost taken by the Black Thing. Sometimes we can't know what spiritual damage it leaves even when physical recovery is complete. (pg. 178) In the end family and love win out - but there are a lot of pieces to connect along the way
On a positive note - what is not subtle is the message of God's love that this story conveys. Like on pg. 162 when Mr. Murray tells Meg, "We were sent here for something. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose." Also this is direct when Meg asks the Beasts if they, too, are fighting against the Black Thing to which the beast replies, "In doing that we can never relax. We are called according to His purpose, and whom He calls, them He also justifies." (pg. 174) There are several other similar passages but I won't quote them all.
And the message that the beasts teach to Meg is also direct; "Just because we want something does not mean that we will get what we want" (pg. 171). Meg wants someone to rescue her little brother and is very frustrated that they are not just jumping up and going to do it. (First they must figure out the best way.)
I liked Mrs. Whatsit's comparison of life being like a sonnet. It must follow a specific pattern but within the pattern there is complete freedom. (pg. 186) Maybe I liked this metaphor especially because the students I work with are studying Shakespeare.