I don’t know if it was my subconscious working or not, but I just realized the irony of how, after I finished reading aloud A Wrinkle in Time, I immediately grabbed Five Children and It as a follow-up.
The irony (just realized) is that in both books, children are confronted by a strange creature and in both books, that creature is referred to as “It.”
(Although to be precise, in Nesbit’s book, the creature is not referred to as “It,” since it has a name – but there’s the title, and so there. )
No, that’s not ironic. The irony is that I turned to Nesbit’s novel with great relief after just barely getting through A Wrinkle in Time without screaming once.
I don’t know if I’d read Wrinkle as a child. I probably had, but I don’t remember it. The copy we have on hand belonged to my daughter, who read all of L’Engle’s series, and enjoyed them.
I didn’t. Not this one, not particularly. Er, not at all.
I’ve been thinking about why, because I’m surprised, myself. I thought I would like it more. No, let’s be honest. I thought it would be better than it was. I found the actual writing flat, prosaic, at times didactic, and not at all a pleasure to read aloud. I appreciated the faith-thrust, and the truth of it, but was put off by what struck me as a not-very-organic and almost arbitrary world-construction. This is something that often puts me off from any kind of fiction with even the barest hint of fantasy/sci-fi – the question of the limits of power. It’s something I’m always looking for – in order for such a work to make sense, it seems to me you have be so careful about what is allowed in your world and what is not, and what the limits of the powers of your creatures are, or else your reader will be thinking, “Well, why don’t they just…..?????” I mean, if you have the power to do this extraordinary thing, you need to make it very clear why you are able to do this and not that…or else I’m checking out.
And for me, aside from the uninteresting prose, that was a problem with Wrinkle. The book is intended to spur us to consider our own “powers” to combat evil via love, to open our own weaknesses to grace and thereby be empowered to retrieve the lost who are in the clutches of “IT” – but for me, it just didn’t translate well into a pseudo-magical realm. I was glad to be done with it.
A Wrinkle in Time also seems to me to be The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit for tweens. There’s nothing wrong with that. I endorse that message. However, times have changed. L’Engle’s work hits on the temptation of conformity at the price of the loss of free will. Always timeless, but in the way in which she wrote it – very mid-century. I would suggest that a more contemporary rendering would hit on a double deception. Not only is the idea that one finds true happiness in ceding freedom false – one must also be hypercritical of and on guard against the cultural and social deception of nonconformity. Let’s put it this way: Contemporary culture is rife with subcultures that appeal to the desire to be noncomformist by expecting and even demanding internal conformity.
Moving on to the other “It” – a Psammead.
People – if you haven’t introduced yourself or your children to E. Nesbit, please do so. This book is a fantastic place to begin. I believe this is the fourth time I’ve read it aloud, and it continues to be a blast, and not just because I revel in playing with various British accents in the telling. This book was written over a hundred years ago, but it is unbelievably fresh and funny – telling the story of a bunch of siblings who happen upon a creature that will grant them wishes – wishes that inevitably go haywire because, you know, “you can’t always get what you want” – and with a Psammead and your own bungled self-understanding – you never do.
(Nesbit’s work was the inspiration for the Half Magic series, which is also good, but not as…)
Don’t be put off by the fact that the books have been around so long. As I said, they are fantastically written, very accessible and quite funny. It’s interesting for me to watch my listeners as it slowly dawns on them what will go wrong this time with this set of wishes…and to work out what they would wish in order to get exactly what they want. Yeah. They wish!
So. Two “Its.” Both present the reader with the truth of the challenges they face, day after day, both personified by an “It” : L’Engle’s IT is…what? The force that would tempt us to believe that happiness lies in surrendering free will, a force which can be overcome only with love and giving over our weaknesses to the power of grace. Absolutely true! But…Nesbit’s “It,” in its every-dayness - that is, the constant human challenge to understand our limits and battle against greed and thoughtless desire – appeals to me more, though, especially since the writing is so much more delicious. And…since I can pull out various British accents in the process: Win.