My Half Price Books calendar tells me that this is the week we celebrate all the great works of literature that were once banned books. What an impressive assembly that is! And I bet, among all those challenging tomes we love to wrestle with, it’s easy for each of us to say, “Oh, yes. This one—that’s my favorite banned book.”
I discovered it in 1967 or so; it sat on a library shelf, paper-covered, unassuming. I was almost 12; the book was five years old. I had never heard of it before, but something told me–although I usually liked a hardcover book, and I didn’t usually read a sci fi fantasy type novel–something told me to take A Wrinkle in Time home.
And of course it was a revelation, a trap door book that tumbled me into a different world. That world, though, had things in it that seemed very real and very recognizable. Meg, the main character, was about the same age as I was; and oh, she was a mess. A fight in the courtyard, come home with rips and tears and covered in mud, mess. She was so bright that she couldn’t function at school; people thought she and her youngest brother were idiots when quite the reverse was true. Their ‘normal’ brothers, the twins, Sandy and Dennys, spent a large part of their rough and tumble lives defending their odd and awkward siblings.
Odd and awkward, always saying the wrong thing: that was me at almost twelve, and I loved Meg for being unabashedly strange and stubborn and despondent and filled with hope. And persistent and loving and open to learning…and oh, the learning she could do. Her mind’s capacity was vast and curious; she had an insatiable need to know why.
Truly, the story was a revelation–an epic fight of bravery vs bullying, of good versus evil, and of lies versus truth. There were monsters and eccentrics and ugliness and throbbing malignant intent. There was a real chance that the darkness would win and the light would be smothered. It was not an easy story in parts, nor was it always a pleasant one, but it was a story in which the light triumphed over evil, in which the side of good,–of God—, is triumphant.
So of course it was questioned and banned.
There were the mystical scenes–the Happy Medium (oh, my twelve year old self loved that pun) and her crystal ball. Star-gazing–clearly messing with the occult. There were scenes in which the conventional beliefs the characters held were challenged; in the challenge, they came to know more deeply. They became more deeply committed to doing what was right.
It didn’t make a conservative audience happy. They wanted it off the shelves.
There was even talk of lewd sex scenes, a charge, L’Engle writes in her memoir, A Circle of Quiet, that sent her rushing to look up the page number references sent her by a California school librarian. The scenes were all to do with the act of traveling through space by means of a tesseract, a kind of folding of time and distance; only, I think, a very very lascivious mind could find anything, anything at all, to object to in those scenes.
The book, Wikipedia tells me, was number 23 on the America Library Association’s list of Most Frequently Challenged Books in 1999-2000.
I believe there are books that are read too early, and that they can then leave a burning imprint of an image a very young mind cannot comprehend or wasn’t ready to see. Discretion is needed. I believe that literature that repeatedly portrays a person or a group as inferior and valueless can harden someone’s compassion. But I believe that an intelligent, challenging book, a book in which a child wrestles with hard things, creates a space in which that child can truly grow.
It’s no accident, I think, that our favorite children’s books deal with tough, tough, issues. I loved Mrs. Mike–but it was the first book I read in which beloved people, innocent people, GOOD people, died. I loved Anne of Green Gables,–and let’s face it, until she met Marilla and Matthew, Anne was mistreated, abused, and devastatingly lonely. Wrinkle revealed mindless conformity and the evil that comes from that.
I believe those books left their marks on me; they made me think about hurt and fairness and injustice. They made me wonder about my beliefs, sure; I had to look and see what it was I really did believe in those situations,—which made me stronger, not more susceptible.
L’Engle herself writes, again in Circle of Quiet, “But do we want unmarked children? Are they to go out into the adult world all bland and similar and unscarred? Is wrapping in cotton wool, literary or otherwise, the kind of guidance we owe them?”
A three year old should not be read a scary book about the darkness blotting out the good. An intelligent, thoughtful ten year old will find that same book a diamond against which to polish her beliefs in helping the weaker, and in standing up–even in the face of ridicule and shame–for what is true and right and good.
The questing child reads to define herself, to sort through the values and discard those he cannot espouse, to wrestle with thought, idea, and philosophy, to get some guidance for the way forward.
How do we define ‘good literature’? a teacher once challenged. A long, multi-class discussion ensued. And the definition we finally all came to agree upon is that good literature doesn’t leave us the same as we were when we began to read. We have struggled, by the time we finish reading the work, and we have grown.
A Wrinkle in Time opened my mind at just the right time–asked the right questions, pushed me to grow, to think, to envision a world with borders just a little further back from where I’d originally placed them. How’s that for a dangerous book?