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.