The winter I was ten, my teacher read A Wrinkle in Time aloud to our class, a chapter a day. It was, in my view, the sole reason for getting up and going to school. I loved the novel's Meg Murry, a girl neither beautiful nor graceful nor socially gifted--yet entrusted with a dangerous and salvific mission. She was an icon of unlikely heroic potential for bespectacled girls everywhere, and I was no exception. I can remember almost panting with impatience for the teacher to take the book out of her desk drawer. I can remember feeling, as she shut the book at the end of another chapter, as if I'd been pushed suddenly and rudely back through a curtain from Meg's world into my own--which looked rather like Meg's, minus the interplanetary travel and the extraterrestrials stealing sheets off the clothesline.
The novels of Madeleine L'Engle that I read in those awkward transitional years of late elementary school and junior high--chiefly A Wrinkle in Time, over and over, and its first sequel, A Wind in the Door--answered some deep longing in me for there to be more to the universe than meets the eye. The idea of cherubim and other supernatural "Servants," the idea that there might really be angels and that they wouldn't be fat babies with wings, but something as unimaginable and terrifying as they were good, was compelling and new to me. I devoured those novels even as I devoured the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, not because they satisfied my inchoate yearning for something beyond the world I knew, but because they stoked it.
Much has already been written on the death of Madeleine L'Engle on September 6 at age eighty-eight, all of it celebrating her contributions to children's literature. In fact, L'Engle bridled at being labeled a "children's author" and insisted that she would not "write down" to her audience. It's true that her fiction was largely marketed for children, whatever her intent, and she was often awarded honors such as the Newbery Medal for children's books. But she was willing, as most children's authors are not, to engage ideas both challenging and strange in the world of children's books.
The tesseract, for instance--the conceit around which A Wrinkle in Time revolves--derives from geometry and describes a four-dimensional construction consisting of three conjoined cubes. Other novels deal with kything, a form of intuitive and extra-verbal communication that can transport the practitioner, in his mind, into other...