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.