For Banned Books Week, we’ve asked our writers to pick a frequently challenged book and tell us how that book has affected them. Today, Ruth Zielinski Hansen writes about Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
This gets to the core of Banned Books Week. Ideas, shared sometimes in the written word, can challenge us. Ideas can be powerful. They can offend us. They can be at odds with our values and our firmly held beliefs. In a country which committed itself (however imperfectly) to protecting the ideal of pluralism from “the tyranny of the majority,” the written word–possibly more than our friends’ Facebook feeds–can remind us that others can think very differently from ourselves. Others know, in their bones, what is right–and what they know is perhaps different than what I know in mine. It’s okay for us to disagree. But this tolerance, this radical idea of love and acceptance of what we have in common, valued over our differences–this has been the backbone of what challengers have found unacceptable in A Wrinkle in Time.
Published in 1962, the book was written in the swelling of the American Civil Rights movement, a highly visible change in our common understanding of what society should look like. The United States passed the federal Civil Rights Act in 1964; pockets of informal residential racial segregation continued openly for years afterwards. Tolerance of other views, other life styles, was not an easy sell. Today our country continues to evolve its social agreement of what society should look like–same-sex marriage? Headscarves in school and in the airport? I have no idea if L’Engle intended her work to inform her readers’ thinking on race–or sexuality, gender, or religion (well, probably on gender and religion)–but in accepting the Newberry Award for this wonderful, challenging book, she described “leading young people into an expanding imagination” to combat social norms encouraging “standardization… the regimentation of us all.” This, one suspects, is part of her picture of evil.
L’Engle writes about evil, and her evil is, not surprisingly, opposed by love. Evil breeds complacence, lack of choice, perfect uniformity; love requires courage, and sacrifice, and knowledge; a willingness to know others, no matter that they may be strange or unpleasant, or that you yourself will make mistakes. To a child whose family moved frequently, this description of a willingness to look around and find commonality, rather than enforcing similarity, was not just acceptance, it was grounds to flourish. When L’Engle brings together Jesus, Gandhi, the Buddha, and Einstein (gasp! A scientist!) as examples of those who have fought evil as she has conceived of it, she is again showing us the difference between commonality and enforced similarity. It’s a nuanced view. I can’t ask her–she died in 2007–but I suspect that she would argue for her view, while respecting the rights of others to argue for theirs.
It’s a bit cliché to end with a quote from the author, but I won’t let that stop me. In fact, since A Wrinkle in Time uses one of the most parodied opening lines in English literature (“It was a dark and stormy night,”) I’ll consider a tribute to her sensibilities. A Wrinkle in Time is considered children’s literature, although there is some discussion as to whether it’s a children’s book, really–or, one might add, what our assumptions are in differentiating children’s literature from adult literature. The quote heading Ms. L’Engle’s webpage is this: “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.”
My twelve-year old asked whether her favorite books, the Harry Potter series, have ever been banned. Indeed, the American Library Association lists them as the most banned and challenged books of the first decade of the 21st century. I’m looking forward to reading her reaction piece.