A condemnation of the novels “A Wrinkle in Time” and “The Phantom Tollbooth”

A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
written by Madeleine L’Engle

The Phantom Tollbooth (1961)
written by Norton Juster
illustrated by Jules Feiffer

edit (7/12/13): I removed the naughty language and personal attacks that were originally present in this critique.

Last semester I had to create a “text set” for my Teaching Reading in the Intermediate Grades class.  This entailed assembling a collection of books and other media that have something in common, such as theme, style, topic, whatever.  I built my text set around the theme of kid(s) from the real world traveling to fantasy worlds. I included personal childhood favorites like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.  I later added the old favorite Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I think fits the theme, with the factory being the fantasy world.  Additionally I included films like Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, Neil Gaiman’s and Dave McKean’s Mirrormask, and Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away.

However, there were other famous books that fit the theme that I had not read, so I checked out Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and loved them, throwing them into my text set.  Then I handed in the assignment and haven’t done much with it since, until recently.  Here are the results of my later explorations . . .


Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was released in 1962 and won the Newbery Award.  Okay, so my first question is WHY?! When the Newbery committee read this book, were they taken in by the flat, cardboard characters?  The fusion of science, magic and religion presented as fact?  Perhaps it was the weak pacing?  Or it might have been the incredible arrogance found in the writing that earned the award.  One can only guess!

The story revolves around a family of superior people.  Each family member is quite intelligent, perhaps genius.  At least one of the children is a telepath but his mother, supposedly a scientist, seems totally uninterested in understanding his ability.  Not only is the family superior in intellect but also in manners and wisdom.  The rest of the town gossips, while these wunderkinds are content to let people think they are stupid or freakish.  The youngest child, although only five, has the vocabulary of a college student even though he can’t read.  His insights are incredibly mature, as well – in fact, there is practically nothing about him that is believable in any way.

Eventually, some angels, which are apparently dead stars but disguised as witches, come along and give the children a chance to save their father, who is imprisoned on a distant planet.  The party may reach this planet by using a tesseract, an underdeveloped and poorly explained technology that apparently requires nothing more than thought (as evidenced by the father’s tessering late in the book).  The kids learn that there is a DARKNESS (scary!) that threatens every inhabited planet.  Our planet is struggling with it as we speak!  It turns out the father is trapped on a planet that is IDENTICAL to earth but which has given into the DARKNESS.  The people even speak English!  I can buy this in a dumb fantasy story like the Ninja Turtles comics I love so much but this book takes itself very, very, very seriously.  The kids save the father in some illogical and poorly explained way but the toddler genius is left behind.

*sigh* Let’s get through this.  After the family messes around with some hairy, blind aliens, the dumbest member of the party, who is apparently most qualified because she’s so relatively dumb, goes back to the dark version of Earth and saves the psychic rugrat by loving him (Care Bear Stare, anyone?) and they go back home.  Hurray.

I would let many of these things slide in a farcical fantasy but this book is kind of like Scientology, presenting itself seriously and arrogantly but without a shred of substance.  In truth, the story isn’t really that bad, but the unrelatable superhuman family and cold, conceited writing ruin it all.  L’Engle reminds me of that person you work with that explains things poorly and then thinks you’re stupid for not understanding.


On the other hand, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth is lighthearted and fancy free, but it’s still poor.  It disturbs me that both of the books in this review are widely assigned as required reading in elementary schools.  Tollbooth is basically a book for people that can’t get enough of cheesy puns and allegories so naked they might as well be in Playboy.

This is a book aimed at people that think it’s very clever to slap a clock on a dog and call him a watchdog.  Oh!  El oh el!  How fun!  To enjoy this book, you have to be so thick that you like the idea of a “spelling bee” that is actually a bee . . . that spells! *guffaw* You will love this tome if you’re partial to the idea of people literally jumping to an island called Conclusions whenever they jump to conclusions.  Oh, how clever!

It’s depressing that there are adults that are amused by this pile, and insulting that it is mentioned in the same breath as Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland.  This whole book is just a never ending series of puns.  I can just imagine Norton Juster walking around, living life to the emptiest, always pulling out a little notepad to record his awesome pun ideas.

In other words, these bricks will not be added to the text set.

9 responses to “A condemnation of the novels “A Wrinkle in Time” and “The Phantom Tollbooth”

  1. I’m with you 100% on A Wrinkle in Time. I’m currently being forced to teach it to my students, and as I read it I was struck at how bad the prose is. The lack of character development – Calvin magically feels at home enough to read stories to the youngest kid after two hours with the family – and, as you said, cardboard thick characterization is embarrassing. You’re the first person I’ve run across outside my very cynical circle of friends that doesn’t like this book so thank you, ever so much, for reassuring me of my sanity.

  2. You sound like a very miserable person. Lighten up a little.

  3. No idea what book you read. Meg isn’t most qualified because she’s so relatively dumb (you obviously missed the point that Meg’s low estimation of her own intelligence is not based in reality); it’s because of the bond that she has with her brother, Charles Wallace. YOU can’t relate to the family, but it was exactly that which had me and every child in my extended family reading all of the books in this series.

    You also appear unaware that the science in Wrinkle in Time is fairly accurate: the tesseract is a very real concept in physics. And the description of the wormhole effect is right on (for a child, anyway).

    And to take offense because everyone the run across speaks English? Seriously, that’s such a common trope that it’s only noticeable in sci-fi when alien races DON’T speak English.

  4. dax miller

    Agreed. I still remember thinking that Wrinkle in Time sucked. Who the f*ck names their dog Fortinbras?

  5. Former teacher

    If you think these two books “suck”, you are not qualified to be a teacher.

  6. When I read “A Wrinkle in Time” as a kid, I loved it so much. It was basically the best book I had ever read up to that point. I am now 31 and a teacher and I decided to re-read it. I was amazingly surprised at how absolutely awful this book is. Positively lousy. I typed “A.W.I.T. is not a well written book” into Google just to see if anybody else thought the same thing. So, I’m really glad for your thoughts. The plot is just ridiculously thrown together. Most of the book is boring expository dialogue where the characters debate what they’re going to do next when we all either know already what they’re going to do or we don’t care. The book is also just a lazy pastiche of sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopian plot devices.
    When I was in fifth grade I wrote my own novel that threw together elements of the Chronicles of Narnia with the Tripod Trilogy. Fifth grade.
    Anyway, I’m glad someone else had thoughts like I did.

  7. I hated A Wrinkle in time for exactly the reasons you said. I never quite noticed the “Christian” themes people say it has but I did get the sense the book might have been written by a very very boring Sunday teacher with a very tight bun on her head. It’t so bad its basically a slap in the face to writing as an art. Think about all the people out there with a Sci Fi novel in their notebook that will never be published, I am sure damn near any of them would be better than A Wrinkle in Time. Apparently this book was banned in some places for the alledged Christian themes separation of church and state or whatnot. I’m not buying that, some merciful teacher/parent/school board member tried to come up with a justification to save children from the horrors of having to read this book without just saying this Newberry Medal classic sucks ass. The “controversy” is in turn used by those who want to deny that this book is in fact the very soul of bad writing. College students taking creative writing or some such class should read this as an example of what not to do. That said I liked A Phantom Tollbooth as a kid, the main difference being, it didn’t take itself seriously. Its meant to be ridiculous, part of the humor is going they are totally not gonna make that pun, oh God thats so bad. And then sometimes you don’t see the pun coming and its actually quite punny. Kids have a pretty lame sense of humor its important to keep that in mind, as an adult it bores me but then I’m not really the target audience. It serves some educational value as well I think, kids are still mastering language if this book helps them use language and have fun with it that serves a good purpose. There is far worse drivel out there than the Phantom Tollbooth.

  8. I have to agree; I could have been much more level-headed when I wrote this critique. Sounds of my points are valid but my delivery was very immature.

  9. I am in my mid-40s. I never read a Wrinkle in Time, but my elementary school had one of those slide shows depicting AWIT where the projector showed pictures in sequence and there was a soundtrack and dialogue that went along with it. The librarian in our school used to show it relatively often, so I saw it several times over my childhood. I never understood what the **** was going on in that story. The plot was totally opaque. For this reason I never even bothered trying to read the book, although I’m a big fan of fantasy and sci fi. Obviously, since I didn’t read the book, I can’t directly critique it, but I can say that whoever made that slide show had a lot of trouble presenting AWIT as a comprehensible story.

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