How A Wrinkle in Time Changed Sci-Fi Forever

BYRON EGGENSCHWILER
BYRON EGGENSCHWILER

Madeleine L'Engle sat in front of her typewriter in the Tower, her private workspace in her family’s isolated, 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse. It was her 40th birthday—November 29, 1958—and she was at a crossroads. Though she had published five novels since her mid-twenties, she was far from a household name, and lately she was having trouble selling her work. She considered her thirties a “total failure” professionally. “Every rejection slip—and you could paper walls with my rejection slips—was like the rejection of me, myself, and certainly of my amour-propre,” she wrote. While her career floundered, her husband had temporarily given up his acting career and started running the local general store.

Now, her latest manuscript, The Lost Innocent, was out with a publisher. Two editors were enthusiastic, another “hated it,” and a fourth was still to be heard from. At midday, her husband called. He had gotten the mail. The book had been rejected.

The blow felt like “an obvious sign from heaven,” she wrote, “an unmistakable command: Stop this foolishness and learn to make cherry pie.” L’Engle covered her typewriter, vowed to abandon it forever, and walked around the room, sobbing.

Then, suddenly, she stopped crying. In her despair, she realized she was already considering turning this moment into another book—one about failure. She would write. She had to write. Even if she never had another work published. “It was not up to me to say I would stop, because I could not,” she wrote. And the novel that lay around the corner was about something far greater than failure.

In October of 1936, an urgent message had arrived at Ashley Hall, a private girls’ boarding school in Charleston, South Carolina. It was addressed to Madeleine, a senior, and it bore the news that her father, Charles Camp, was ill with pneumonia. He’d recently attended his Princeton reunion, where he appeared the picture of health, but upon returning home to Jacksonville, he’d begun to deteriorate. L’Engle grabbed a trusty copy of Jane Eyre and boarded a train for Florida. She arrived too late to say goodbye.

Her father had traveled the world as a foreign correspondent, worked as a freelance writer and critic, and written mystery novels. The family moved repeatedly: from New York City to France, and then to Florida. At each juncture, L’Engle was sent to boarding schools or placed in the care of a nanny. “My parents had been married for nearly 20 years when I was born,” she wrote in her memoir Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, “and although I was a very much wanted baby, the pattern of their lives was already well established and a child was not part of that pattern.”

Early on, she sought company in books and writing, penning her first story at the age of 5, and at 8 starting a journal. She played the piano and lived in an “interior dream world.” At school, she was the odd girl out. A limp made her bad at sports. Classmates and teachers called her stupid. One teacher accused her of plagiarizing a poem that won a contest (her mother brought in a pile of stories from home to prove she hadn’t). Those experiences, along with her father’s death, left a rift that she would confront again and again in her fiction. From the beginning, her novels centered on teenage girls who don’t fit in. Her work abounds with lost and estranged parents, family conflict, and the trials of young adulthood.

She kept writing while attending Smith College, where she edited The Smith College Monthly (there, things got heated with Bettye Goldstein, the future Betty Friedan, who turned the literary magazine into an outlet for political debate) and published short stories in magazines like Mademoiselle and The Tanager. When asked by her first editors how she’d like her byline to appear, she chose “to be known not as Charles Wadsworth Camp’s talented daughter but rather, in a cleaner victory for her, as ‘Madeleine L’Engle’” (her great-grandmother’s name), writes Leonard S. Marcus in the biography Listening for Madeleine.

After college, she moved to New York City and published her first two novels within a year of each other. She also pursued a short-lived career in acting, winning spots in the Broadway and touring productions of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. On tour, she fell in love with a cast mate, Hugh Franklin, who, years later, would become famous as Dr. Charles Tyler in All My Children. They married in January of 1946 and lived in Greenwich Village (downstairs from Leonard Bernstein) before purchasing a farmhouse in Goshen, Connecticut. They had two children and adopted another, and immersed themselves in the community and their local Congregational church.

It seemed idyllic, but tensions were bubbling. In her thirties, facing repeated rejections from publishers, L’Engle privately wondered if her professional aspirations had compromised her personal life. “I went through spasms of guilt because I spent so much time writing, because I wasn’t like a good New England housewife and mother,” she later wrote in her memoir A Circle of Quiet, “and with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially.” She yearned for proof that her divided attention to career and family had been the right choice. Instead, on her 40th birthday, she got another “no.”

A year later, she went on a 10-week cross-country camping trip with her family. As they drove through Arizona’s Painted Desert, an idea popped into her head. It started with three names: Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which. “I’ll have to write a book about them,” she told her kids.

Sigrid Estrada

On a “Dark and Story Night” (L’Engle’s first line winks at English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s infamous purple prose), a troubled young girl named Meg Murry can’t sleep in the attic bedroom of her family’s big, drafty farmhouse. She goes downstairs to find her younger brother, the genius, mind-reading Charles Wallace, already warming milk for her cocoa. Their father, a government scientist, has been missing for more than a year, and at school, Meg’s classmates tease her about it.

Then, out of the storm appears Mrs Whatsit, who will in time prove to be a celestial being. She shocks Meg’s mother by mentioning a mysterious word: tesseract—the method of time travel Meg’s father was working on before he disappeared. Soon, Charles Wallace and Meg, along with Calvin O’Keefe, a popular boy from Meg’s school, are dashing through time and space with Mrs Whatsit and her two pals, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. Their aim: To combat a darkness threatening to take over the universe and find Meg’s dad, who has been engaged in the same battle.

It’s a fantastical story featuring interstellar travel; alien planets; an evil, disembodied brain; and a world under siege from an unknown force. But ultimately, A Wrinkle in Time is grounded in human concerns that L’Engle knew all too well. “Of course I’m Meg,” she once said. Where the stories of Meg and her author diverge, aside from the interplanetary jaunts and interactions with mystical creatures, is that Meg saves her father. In doing so, she becomes empowered with the knowledge that she can take care of herself, even if she can’t save the world. “Indeed, the crux of the book rests on Meg’s coming to understand that her father cannot save her or Charles Wallace, or make the world a less anxious place,” wrote Meghan O’Rourke for Slate in 2007. “Part of the task she faces is, simply, accepting the evil that is in the world while continuing to battle against it.”

Editors, though, didn’t see what was special about the work. “Today I am crawling around in the depths of gloom,” L’Engle wrote in her journal after one suggested she cut it in half. Time and again, her manuscript was turned down. It dealt too overtly with evil, some editors said. Others couldn’t tell if it was for children or adults. L’Engle loved sharing her rejection story, Marcus writes, “varying the number of rejections she had endured—had it been 26? 36?— with each retelling.”

She told at least two stories about how it was finally accepted: In the most common, a friend of her mother connected her with John Farrar of the publishing company Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Soon she was signing a contract, but with low expectations: “Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t do well,” they told her. In the second, more dubious version, Farrar was leaving the church where he and L’Engle worshipped when he noticed an envelope containing the manuscript on a pew and, in a publishing miracle, saved it. Finally, in 1962, two and a half years after the book’s inception, it was published.

The following year, A Wrinkle in Time was awarded the John Newbery Medal, one of the most prestigious honors in children’s literature. (When told the news, L’Engle responded with “an inarticulate squawk.”) She would go on to publish, on average, a book a year for the next 40 years. Financially stable from her writing at last, she also felt the professional validation she’d been craving for so long. Looking back at that fateful 40th birthday, she wrote, “I did learn ... that success is not my motivation. I am grateful for that terrible birthday, which helps me to wear glass slippers lightly, very lightly.”

Still, there’s no doubt that she felt euphoric on the night she accepted her Newbery award, even if not everyone present enjoyed the moment. After the speech, the story goes, an acquaintance went into the ladies room, where one of the many editors who had rejected the book leaned over the sink and drunkenly sobbed: “And to think I turned down that manuscript!”

The reception of Wrinkle was far from universally positive, though. It was a weird mashup of genres combining science fiction with fantasy and a quest; a coming-of-age story with elements of romance, magic, mystery, and adventure. There’s a political, anti-conformist message, and at its heart is the importance of family, community, freedom of choice, and, most of all, love. In some ways, there was too much room for interpretation in L’Engle’s themes. Secular critics deemed it excessively religious—L’Engle was a devout Anglican—but religious conservatives, who have repeatedly tried to ban it, argued it was anti-Christian.

The book, published at the beginning of the second wave of feminism, also carried a groundbreaking message: Girls could do anything boys could do, and better. A year later, The Feminine Mystique, written by L’Engle’s former classmate Betty Friedan, would emerge as a platform for the frustrated American housewife, and Congress would pass the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal to pay a woman less than what a man would earn for the same job. To some extent, Mrs. Murry in A Wrinkle in Time is already living the future: She’s a brilliant scientist who works alongside her husband and in his absence, too; later in the series, she wins a Nobel Prize. (Math whiz Meg would grow up to follow similar pursuits.) And Meg, a girl, is able to succeed where the men and boys—Calvin, Charles Wallace, and her father—cannot.

With that character so like herself, L’Engle struck back against the 1950s ideal of the woman whose duty was to home and family (the same expectations that conflicted the author in her thirties). Instead of staying at home, Meg goes out into the universe, exploring uncharted territories and unheard-of planets.

At the time, science fiction for and by women was a rarity. There was no one like Meg Murry before Meg Murry, though she left a legacy to be picked up by contemporary young adult heroines like The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen and the Harry Potter series’ Hermione Granger. Beyond creating this new type of heroine, A Wrinkle in Time, along with Norton Juster’s 1961 book The Phantom Tollbooth, changed science fiction itself, opening “the American juvenile tradition to the literature of ‘What if?’ as a rewarding and honorable alternative to realism in storytelling,” writes Marcus. This shift, in turn, opened doors for writers like Lloyd Alexander and Ursula K. Le Guin. In these fantasy worlds, as in the real world, things can’t always be tied up neatly. Evil can never be truly conquered; indeed, a key to fighting it is knowing that. It’s a sophisticated lesson children thrill to, and one in which adults continue to find meaning.

When asked why she wrote for children, L’Engle would often reply, “I don’t”—her stories were stories she needed to write, for whomever wanted to read them. But she also remembered what it felt like to be young, how endless the possibilities were, real or imagined. If anyone persisted in questioning her, she would sharply inform them, “If I have something I want to say that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children.”

Swear Off Toilet Paper With This Bidet Toilet Seat That's Easy to Install and Costs Less Than $100

Tushy
Tushy

The recent coronavirus-related toilet paper shortage has put the spotlight on the TP-less alternative that Americans have yet to truly embrace: the bidet.

It's not exactly a secret that toilet paper is wasteful—it's estimated to cost 437 billion gallons of water and 15 million trees to produce our yearly supply of the stuff. But while the numbers are plain to see, bidets still aren't common in the United States.

Well, if price was ever the biggest barrier standing in the way of swearing off toilet paper for good, there's now a cost-effective way to make the switch. Right now, you can get the space-saving Tushy bidet for less than $100. And you'll be able to install it yourself in just 10 minutes.

What is a Bidet?

Before we go any further, let’s just go ahead and get the awkward technical details out of the way. Instead of using toilet paper after going to the bathroom, bidets get you clean by using a stream of concentrated water that comes out of a faucet or nozzle. Traditional bidets look like weird toilets without tanks or lids, and while they’re pretty uncommon in the United States, you’ve definitely seen one if you’ve ever been to Europe or Asia.

That said, bidets aren’t just good for your butt. When you reduce toilet paper usage, you also reduce the amount of chemicals and emissions required to produce it, which is good for the environment. At the same time, you’re also saving money. So this is a huge win-win.

Unfortunately, traditional bidets are not an option for most Americans because they take up a lot of bathroom space and require extra plumbing. That’s where Tushy comes in.

The Tushy Classic Bidet Toilet Seat.

Unlike traditional bidets, the Tushy bidet doesn’t take up any extra space in your bathroom. It’s an attachment for your existing toilet that places an adjustable self-cleaning nozzle at the back of the bowl, just underneath the seat. But it doesn’t require any additional plumbing or electricity. All you have to do is remove the seat from your toilet, connect the Tushy to the clean water supply behind the toilet, and replace the seat on top of the Tushy attachment.

The Tushy has a control panel that lets you adjust the angle and pressure of the water stream for a perfect custom clean. The nozzle lowers when the Tushy is activated and retracts into its housing when not in use, keeping it clean and sanitary.

Like all bidets, the Tushy system takes a little getting used to. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll never want to use toilet paper again. In fact, Tushy is so sure you’ll love their product, they offer customers a 60-day risk-free guarantee. If you don’t love your Tushy, you can send it back for a full refund, minus shipping and handling.

Normally, the Tushy Classic retails for $109, but right now you can get the Tushy Classic for just $89. So if you’ve been thinking about going TP-free, now is definitely the time to do it.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

How Small Wonder Programmed Itself Into a Hit

Tiffany Brissette stars as Vicki the Robot in Small Wonder.
Tiffany Brissette stars as Vicki the Robot in Small Wonder.
Shout! Factory

Emily Webster only remembers so much from her time on Small Wonder, but she definitely remembers Lou.

Lou was a little person in his 50s who drove a Cadillac with foot pedals and had a grey handlebar mustache that drooped over his face. When Webster, who played Harriet, and the rest of the cast rehearsed their lines, Lou would stand in the darkness behind the camera and laugh so they’d know where to pause for the studio audience: Ha, ha, ha, ha!

“It was an ominous laugh,” Webster says. “A little disconcerting for a 6-year-old.”

Lou laughed on command because he was already on set as a stand-in for the child actors. With a modest budget, Small Wonder was in no position to pay someone just to come to the set and chuckle. One of the earliest half-hour shows to originate in syndication, it was an objectively banal sitcom about an engineer named Ted Lawson who fabricates a robot to resemble a 9-year-old girl. He dubs his creation VICI (Voice Input Child Identicant, a.k.a. Vicki), explaining to people she was adopted after her parents were killed in an accident.

Tiffany Brissette, Emily Schulman, and Jerry Supiran in Small Wonder
Tiffany Brissette, Jerry Supiran, and Emily Webster star in Small Wonder.
Shout! Factory

Instead of selling his innovation for billions, Lawson squirrels her away in a cabinet; Vicki would go on to spend four seasons and 96 episodes antagonizing the Lawson family (and television critics) with her literal-mindedness, super-strength, and monotone voice.

Children loved the show. So did senior citizens. So did sci-fi clubs, which frequently wrote in to analyze the suspect logic of artificial intelligence but were nonetheless delighted such a thing as a “sci-fi sitcom” existed. Small Wonder was a syndicated hit two years before Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, but its reputation is that of filmed tedium. Nearly 35 years after its debut, the show is simultaneously remembered with fondness and outright scorn.

“You,” a stranger once told Webster, “were on the worst show in the history of television.”

 

Small Wonder’s lack of subtlety is usually laid at the feet of Howard Leeds, a former child actor himself who had gone on to a successful television writing career. He co-created Silver Spoons and worked on Diff’rent Strokes as well as the 1960s series My Living Doll, which featured a pre-Catwoman Julie Newmar as an android trying to blend in with society.

In the early 1980s, Leeds came up with an idea about a child robot who slowly adopts human traits, which he intended to be broadly written and performed for his intended audience of children. Leeds showed it to NBC, where he had a deal; when they passed, Leeds bought it back from them and sold it to Metromedia, a company that was trying to break in to the first-run syndication market. Instead of airing expensive episodes of old hit shows, stations were looking for fresh (and cheaper) material. If nothing else, Small Wonder was something different.

“Honestly, the whole thing sounded sketchy,” says Marla Pennington-Rowan, who played Mrs. Lawson. (A character, the writers lamented, so thinly-drawn they usually introduced her chopping carrots.) “Syndication was not well-known. I didn’t think anyone would even see it.” During one taping, Pennington-Rowan was distraught that no one in the audience was laughing. She later figured out they were all Chinese tourists who didn’t speak English.

Metromedia committed to 13 episodes with a budget of $300,000 each, which Leeds believed to be the lowest of any sitcom on television. It did little to contribute to special effects for Vicki’s feats—spinning her head 360 degrees or picking up a refrigerator. Green screen shots were performed on Thursdays, with the cast having to come in early. Tiffany Brissette, the 9-year-old who was cast as Vicki, once had trouble breathing after she had a green stocking pulled over her head; her mother had to tell them to stop.

Tiffany Brissette, Richard Christie, and Marla Pennington in Small Wonder (1985)
Richard Christie, Tiffany Brissette, and Marla Pennington-Rowan in Small Wonder.
Shout! Factory

When not in danger of suffocating, Brissette, a pageant girl who had been up for the title role in Punky Brewster, had a deceptively difficult job: Staring expressionlessly and speaking in a monotone do not come naturally to a child, and she’d gnaw on the inside of her cheeks to keep from smiling.

She could also perform strange mimicry when the script called for it. “She did a good John Wayne,” Tiffany’s mother, Diane, recalls. Brissette, in fact, was better than the 400 other girls Leeds tested—who likely could not do any kind of John Wayne at all—and as a result he was paranoid something might happen to her. “Howard didn’t like the fact she rode horses or went ice-skating. He was afraid she’d get hurt.”

Brissette rehearsed and studied during the week; on weekends, she and her mother would be shuttled around and out of the country for promotional appearances. Small Wonder was sold to more than 20 countries and was immensely popular in Italy, France, India, and Brazil, where it was called Super Vicki. Once, Brissette sang for a crowd of more than 30,000 people in Bogotá, Colombia.

“She worked really hard,” Diane says, “and deserved to be paid more. That was a point of contention. The adults got more money than she did.”

 

Though Small Wonder was hitting the right demographics, there was surprisingly little licensing support for the show. A Halloween costume was issued one year, but ideas for a Vicki the Robot doll never made it past the prototype stage; a cartoon was discussed, then dismissed. One possibility is that Fox, which had bought Metromedia, was not fond of Small Wonder and had no vested interest beyond honoring the two-year renewal made by Metromedia for a third and fourth season. (The show was so cheap that it was virtually impossible to lose money.)

As Brissette grew older, both she and her mother insisted she be given more to do: a change of clothing, speaking in a “human” voice, or singing—anything to further the idea Vicki was adapting to her environment. “Tiffany was extraordinarily talented, but playing the role that well was a double-edged sword,” Webster says. “She wasn’t able to show any range.”

Tiffany Brissette, Richard Christie, Marla Pennington, and Jerry Supiran in Small Wonder (1985)
Marla Pennington-Rowan, Tiffany Brissette, Richard Christie, and Jerry Supiran in Small Wonder.
Shout! Factory

Writers petitioned for a similar break in banality, which Leeds did not grant. One of them, Mel Sherer, had written for Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and other classic sitcoms, as well as for the subversive performances of Andy Kaufman. Small Wonder was an aberration. One script featured eight pages of conversation—economically sound but creatively stilted. It prompted one writer to ask if they were working on a sitcom or an oil painting.

“The good news was, it was the easiest schedule I’ve ever had on a sitcom,” Sherer says. “We were always done by 5:30. But it was just so obviously not good that there was no way of fixing it. The ratings confounded us. But it was the way Howard wanted it.”

A Small Wonder credit was not necessarily desirable for a writer. “You can’t remove it,” he says. “I’d have people look at my resume and say, ‘Ahh, I see you’re well-prepared for a career in show business.'”

 

Owing to some combination of Fox’s apathy and Leeds—who passed away in 2017 at age 97—wanting to move on, the show ended in the spring of 1989. Brissette turned her attention to school and became a registered nurse; she posed in Vicki’s pinafore for a 2007 Details magazine shoot. The show still periodically makes lists of “worst shows ever,” though in reality, it’s not far removed from the kid-friendly sitcoms that currently populate The Disney Channel.

When it was canceled, Fox threw a wrap party for the cast and crew. “Some of us were sad and some of us were ready to move on,” Webster says. “But I did finally tell Lou I was scared of him.”

An earlier version of this story originally ran in 2015.