Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Megan: Mentor Texts - A Wrinkle in Time

English teachers call them mentor texts. These are books that can be used to teach a specific writing lesson or skill. Writers often use mentor texts, even if they don’t know the term. While student writers use mentor texts often to start a project, professional writers are likely to find them more useful in the revision stage, so as not to become unduly influenced by the work. I know writers who won’t read books on similar themes or topics when they are drafting -- some won’t even read other fiction as they work on their novels. But, when revising, a mentor text can help you to see your own work in a new way and provide possible solutions in tricky spots.

I found myself turning to a number of mentor texts as I wrote my Middle Grade novel The Water Castle. In the novel, three kids are searching for the Fountain of Youth, each for his or her own reason. I leave it purposefully ambiguous as to whether they find it, or if there is an actual scientific reason for the strange things to happen in the town. In order for this approach to be successful, the magical and scientific explanations both needed to be believable, and thus I needed to have a plausible scientific explanation. How, I wondered, can you introduce complex scientific content without breaking your narrative to sound like a textbook has been inserted?

Re-reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle became a touchstone in my writing process. I first read L’Engle’s classic novel as a child, probably third or fourth grade. I was thrilled to find a book with a character who shared my name, especially a smart girl, especially a girl who got to meet a boy like Calvin (oh, Calvin!) The ins and outs of how Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and Calvin travelled was less interesting to me than the world’s they visited. My lasting memory of the book is of the street in Camazotz with all the children bouncing the ball in the same rhythm.

While my memories of the book were fond, I might never have revisited it as a writer if it weren’t for a group of middle school readers. As a middle school librarian, I run a book club, and the students chose to read A Wrinkle in Time last year -- just as I was working on revisions with my editor, Mary Kate Catellani at Walker Books. She was pushing me for more clarity around the scientific aspect of the book, and I was really struggling. A Wrinkle In Time helped to solve my problem.

In the book, Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin “tesser” -- essentially jumping through time and space. We’re talking quantum physics here. The concept is explained to Meg by Charles Wallace and Mrs. Whatsit -- two bonafide geniuses. Meg serves as our proxy, and her understanding is the key to ours. So, first L’Engle has Mrs. Whatsit explain the tesseract in a very basic way: imagine an ant travelling along Mrs. Who’s skirt, if she folds the fabric, the ant gets to the new location in a much shorter amount of time than if the skirt were flat. Now imagine the skirt is time, and there’s a wrinkle in it. Okay, that makes a bit of sense. But Meg, and through her the reader, knows that there’s more to it. More explanations ensue, accompanied by sketches. Eventually, Meg exclaims, “I got it! For just a moment I got it! I can’t possibly explain it now, but there for a second, I saw it!”  In my case, the kids need to figure out the mystery themselves, but, L’Engle’s example let me realize my characters could be uncertain in their understanding, too.

A Wrinkle in Time worked as a mentor text for me in a more philosophical sense as well. L’Engle famously stated “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups then you write it for children.” A Wrinkle In Time is indeed a difficult book. In addition to the science, it tackles difficult themes such as individuality, totalitarianism, and the fallibility of parents. Her example provided me reassurance as I worked through my own take on challenging themes including the lure of immortality and the line between science and magic. As writers’ for children, we can take L’Engle’s work as a reminder not to shy away from these types of big themes. They can handle it, as 50 years’ worth of children can attest.
 For your enjoyment: A Wrinkle In Time in 90 Seconds!

5 comments:

  1. * I like that term, mentor texts. Great post! Thanks for sharing your experiences. Will keep your words in mind while I continue with my revisions.

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  2. Isn't it a great term, Gerri? It's like the author's are teaching us -- which indeed they are.

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  3. I loved your book and passed it on to my fourth grade twins. Although I didn't realize it at the time, when my mother read us A Wrinkle in Time, she set me up to embrace works by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. I can vividly recall the scene in which the children momentarily tesser to a two dimensional world. Your book does a great job of piquing the reader's curiousity and teasing us to imagine. I find myself still pondering a question you purposefully left unanswered. Thanks for the book and this post!

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  4. I enjoyed that video so much I added it to my review for A Wrinkle in Time. Thanks for sharing!

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