Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick (1971)
Julie Andrews Edwards’ The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (1974)
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962)

If I’d looked back to my childhood reading, I would have described myself as being much more comfortable with witches and dragons, enchantments and whangdoodles, than with scientists and aliens, tesseracts and genetics. And reading The Little Broomstick would not have disabused that notion.

Mary Stewart’s novel was one of the first novels to sit on my bookshelf and was likely inspired by my mother’s love of Mary Stewart’s novels for grown-ups, particularly her Arthur series, for which my mother had a particular fondness (beginning with The Crystal Cave).

I never developed the same fondness for Mary Stewart’s adult mythic fiction, but I re-read The Little Broomstick many times. I adored the idea of a very plain and ordinary girl, named Mary Smith, being discovered to be a very extraordinary witch: a timeless theme.

And the story remains a charming read for an adult reader, who gets an extra giggle out of Cambridge University actually being an institute of respected magical learning, properly called Gormbridge. And who doesn’t want a little broomstick anyway?!

The Little Broomstick is a gentle fantasy story but I had remembered both the Edwards novel and the L’Engle as being fantasy stories as well and found there was a good bit of science in there that I didn’t recognize as such when I read them as a child.

I distinctly remember “discovering” sci-fi, discovering that I actually enjoyed it I mean, when I was 13 or so, stuck abed with John Christopher’s Tripod Trilogy (beginning with 1967’s The White Mountains). I’d adopted the typical girl’s idea that I wasn’t good at science, not even at reading stories about it, and completely missed the science elements of these two stories that I re-read so often.

Julie Andrews Edwards’ The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles was a particular favourite but it was only available through my school library, not even any of the various public libraries that my family borrowed from, and not in bookstores; perhaps that added to its desirability because I was constantly in a state of wanting it but it wasn’t until 1989 that a paperback edition was republished.

When I re-read it at that time I remember being a little disappointed, but by then I had discovered new favourites in the genre, characterized by substantially more complex world-building (whether in kidlit, like Michael Ende’s mesmerizing The Neverending Story, or in adult lit, like Guy Gavriel Kay’s stunning Fionavar Tapestry, beginning with The Summer Tree). So I was hesitant to re-read but actually enjoyed it very much.

It’s a simple story about the vital importance of imagination and, although it sometimes does feel a bit old-fashioned, it doesn’t cross the Gosh-Jolly-Gee-Jeepers line and, somehow, the ideas of ecology and genetics all fit so comfortably with the idea of the whangdoodle’s potential extinction that the science is not obtrusive.

The lessons are short: “Try to imagine a human cell. A single, microscopically small unit of life. Inside the nucleus, the very center, is a sort of ladder, a ladder twisted into a spiral. On that spiral is all the information as to how life comes about.”

I was a bit shocked to see this (as I often am when a concept that I distinctly identify as ‘adult’ appears in kidlit) but, with the concept of DNA and RNA presented in the context of a rainbow-coloured bunny, the science is as comprehensible as necessary without being burdensome, and I think that’s why I remembered the fantasy without the science, because when all is written and read, it’s all about the story.

This is also true of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. You don’t need to know that a tesseract is the four-dimensional analogue of the cube to enjoy meeting Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatnot. Okay, okay, you caught me: it’s Mrs. Which, not Mrs. Whatnot.

I know, I know: this book is a favourite of countless readers and there really isn’t anything new that I can add to the discussion about it. It’s a magical story and even though the movie ::cough:: overlooked Meg’s braces and intense-awkwardness, it still garnered new readers for a book that deserves readers and re-readers. I think I enjoyed the book every bit as much as I did as a child, perhaps even a little more.

Most of it felt very familiar (e.g. Meg’s interactions with the principal and her troubles at school, the Murry house and the lab off the kitchen, the Dark Thing, the sweet and precocious Charles Wallace) but I really hadn’t noticed the prevalence of science in this novel as a child either.

Just as with Julie Andrews Edwards’ writing, Madeleine L’Engle incorporates science into this fantastic story in a seamless and relevant way: it’s actually quite wonder+ful. And I’m certain that I didn’t realize that I was getting a geometry lesson when I was reading chapter five and admiring the line-drawings with ants and strings and squares.

Something else I didn’t know, when I was reading these books as a child, is that all of Madeleine L’Engle’s books are somehow interconnected.

Now this is quite possibly my most favourite-est writer’s trick ever, so it instantly earned the author a new place on my MRE list and sent me scurrying to her site.

I’m also planning to re-read the first in the Austin series next month, also inspired by the Shelf-Discovery Reading Challenge.

Apparently this series was republished in late 2008, which is tempting, but I think I’ll re-read my battered old copy of Meet the Austins and perhaps find new copies of The Young Unicorns and Troubling a Star, which are missing from my shelves.