Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Fifty years later: A Wrinkle in Time

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It’s quite possible that I owe my decision to become a novelist to Madeleine L’Engle. When I was growing up, L’Engle was one of my trinity of great young adult authors, back when they were writing what were still called children’s books, along with Ellen Raskin and Zilpha Keatley Snyder. And while Snyder had the greatest impact on the kinds of esoteric subjects that still fascinate me—The Headless Cupid was an early hint of a tendency that would culminate in The Icon Thief—and Raskin set a standard for ingenuity that no author has matched since, L’Engle’s influence may be the most profound. Her work was my first glimpse of what I’ve since come to think of as the novel of ideas in its most rewarding form: richly imagined, emotional, and dramatic works of fiction whose central subject is the search for meaning in a universe dominated by science and information, which are really forms of protection against the unknown. And all these qualities are already there in A Wrinkle in Time, her most famous novel, which was published fifty years ago this month.

When I first encountered A Wrinkle in Time, I was eight years old, and I immediately sensed that this book was something different than the novels I had been reading up to that point. It was an exciting story that gained much of its texture from digressions into science, art, and history, and was accessible to young readers without the slightest trace of condescension. Its characters were both instantly recognizable and marked by the fervor of their excitement about ideas, which flew off like sparks whenever they spoke, and not simply because they were necessary for the plot. Above all else, there was a sense of the personality of the author herself, who wrote about intelligent people because these were the characters she knew the best. I was young enough so that I didn’t entirely grasp how extraordinary this was, or how hard it would be to find more books like this as I grew older. All I knew that this was the sort of thing I wanted to read, and, ultimately, to write.

Looking back at A Wrinkle in Time, it’s astonishing to realize how modestly scaled it is, at least in terms of length: less than two hundred pages long, but packed with enough invention to fuel five ordinary novels. (Compare this to the length of the last few Harry Potter or Twilight novels, and you see how artful L’Engle’s brevity really is.) And it never seems rushed or artificial. One of L’Engle’s great strengths is to take rather precious conceits, like the two-dimensional planet or the Happy Medium, and make them seem less like a series of set pieces—as they do even in such authors as Lewis Carroll or Norton Juster—than an organic sequence of events. A Wrinkle in Time is an episodic novel, but it feels tightly constructed, thanks largely to the strength of the protagonists, who are idiosyncratic, flawed, and heroic. L’Engle melds the tradition of high-concept fantasy with the believable characters of the best children’s literature, to the point where we’re genuinely curious about how their lives will turn out, which we later learn in the novel’s excellent sequels.

It’s hard to imagine a young adult novel being published today with the range of L’Engle’s influences and interests, largely because it’s the kind of book that creates its own readership, rather than appealing to one that already exists. Indeed, even at the time, it was far from a sure thing: its struggles to get into print are legendary, and it was rejected by something like twenty-six publishers. It’s still a strange, unclassifiable novel, with elements of science fiction, fantasy, and even allegory, although none of the allegorical elements stand in the way of the plot. (It’s frustrating to see some readers reduce it to a Christian or anti-Communist allegory, as if there weren’t so much else going on.) And the book’s singularity reflects that of L’Engle itself, who combined a restlessly curious imagination with religious faith and a refreshing dose of clarity and common sense. She’s simply one of the most inventive authors of the past fifty years, and her books are a model of how to write beautifully rendered fiction for readers of any age. If I could have any writer’s career, it might be hers.

Written by nevalalee

March 28, 2012 at 10:31 am

Asimov’s Sword, or the intelligent twelve-year-old

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For my twelfth birthday, my parents must have given me a few good presents, but the only one I still vividly remember, close to two decades later, is the June 1992 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. I’m not sure what inspired them to pick it up—it’s the only time they ever got me a copy—but I read it cover to cover, and still remember many of the stories, including “The Big Splash” by L. Sprague de Camp, “Grownups” by Ian R. MacLeod, and “Monsters” by James Patrick Kelly. (The latter two novelettes, incidentally, benefited from excellent artwork, which I can still picture to this day, by Laurie Harden, who nineteen years later would go on to illustrate my story “The Boneless One.”) And I have to admit that whenever I get a story into Analog, I secretly hope that among the magazine’s declining but faithful band of readers, there’s at least one twelve-year-old boy or girl on whose imagination I’ll make a similarly lasting impression.

Because smart twelve-year-olds are the best audience in the world. Asimov himself realized this, almost fifty years ago, when he wrote his famous editorial “The Sword of Achilles” for the November 1963 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Asimov notes that it’s important to be able to identify young children who will go on to be creative scientists, in order to foster their talents from an early age, and that the best predictor for such gifts is an interest in what he calls “good science fiction.” He then lists a few authors who might qualify, such as Clarke, Pohl, and de Camp, and also the science fiction magazines “universally acknowledged to be of highest quality,” including, of course, Analog. Asimov concludes: “It is youngsters who are interested in these authors and these magazines, then, that we seek for.” And while the list itself has certainly evolved over the past fifty years, the underlying point remains true: one of the greatest functions of quality fiction lies in encouraging the imaginations of intelligent teens and preteens.

But the real takeaway here is that none of these authors was writing for children. They were writing for adults, and the kids found them anyway. This is one of the reasons why I have mixed feelings about the increasing dominance of young adult fiction. (Part of me suspects that these novels are really intended for adults who just want to read children’s books, but that’s another issue entirely.) At first glance, it seems like a positive development: teens and preteens have more books targeted at them than ever before, many of them thinly disguised versions of adult genres, and some are very good. But it isn’t enough to read books targeted at your own level: you need to read slightly above it. When I was growing up, there weren’t many options for young adults once I’d graduated past the likes of Zilpha Keatley Snyder, so I had no choice to plunge into Animal Farm and 1984, at which point there was no turning back. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m one of millions of teens who read Stephen King long before the appropriate age, which is exactly the right time to read him. But I’m not sure how many kids are doing this today.

As I see it, Asimov’s Sword needs to be slightly revised. If an interest in good science fiction is a predictor of scientific creativity, an early interest in good—or even bad—adult fiction is a predictor for creativity in general. Smart kids are always going to read things that are slightly inappropriate, and we need to encourage this, both actively, by giving them access to books beyond those available in the young adult section at Barnes & Noble, and passively, by looking the other way when they show up with the inevitable battered paperback copy of The Stand. My own novels are meant for adults, but I’d be thrilled to see them in the hands of sixth-graders. Because as Asimov points out, these books aren’t just predictors, but active influences in their own right. “Interest in science is stimulated by the reading,” he notes, “rather than the reverse.” And that’s true of most fiction—but only when written for adults. Because the smart kids will find it on their own.

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