This summer, every Monday and Wednesday, I am hosting a series of guest posts here on my blog called Middle Grade Memories. In this series, authors, agents, librarians, and editors talk about their favorite childhood middle grade books. I’m beyond thrilled to share their middle grade memories with you.
Below is the fifth post in the series, by Phoebe North, author of the upcoming YA science fiction novel, Starglass. Read on as Phoebe talks about one of her favorite childhood middle grade books, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Then check out the giveaway!
My sister was older. She had the better room.
When she turned ten, my parents let her redecorate. There were irises on her walls; mine still wore bunnies and butterflies. Now, at fourteen, my sister had covered those lavender blossoms with posters–Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But the short white bookshelf remained the same–neatly stacked with Judy Blume, every book in the Land of Oz series, and several dozen Baby-sitters Club volumes. You can’t blame me for being tempted.
I was nine, and wandered in on some golden afternoon. I’m not sure what drew me to the green-paged paperback. Even then, the cover was vaguely embarrassing. A boy with feathered hair clutched a unicorn’s mane as evil, grinning creatures tried to unseat him. It was the kind of image that wasn’t too uncommon in those days; girls at school were still bringing their unicorn Trapper Keepers to class. But both unicorn and boy looked frightened, their eyes turned back and open wide. And there was something about the title–musical, mellifluent, magical. A Swiftly Tilting Planet.
I’d been waiting for a book like this for a long, long time. I’m not sure what gave me the idea. I searched garage sales and bookstores for magical tomes, hoping to find evidence that the world outside was not really as pedestrian as I’d begun to suspect. A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeline L’Engle suggested just that.
Funny thing. My sister’s copy was missing the first several pages. It began in media res, at a Thanksgiving dinner with the Murrys. At this point, I hadn’t read the first volume, A Wrinkle in Time. I did not know who Charles Wallace was, or why his father would be getting a call from the President concerning matters of national importance.
But I recognized, immediately and intuitively, how very real the world L’Engle was weaving felt. I could see the family gathered in that farmhouse–Pregnant Meg; and the haughty, logical twins; and their parents; and Meg’s mother-in-law, who was a bit scary. Swiftly may have been the first novel that I read that dealt primarily with the adult world. This was not a story of a coming of age, not precisely. Though Charles Wallace was fifteen, he was like no teenager I’d ever met. He seemed both much older and much younger. Centered, calm. At nine, I’d already begun to feel my emotions burn brightly, with a force and intensity I’d never experienced before. Charles Wallace offered an alternative: a quiet, contemplative, cultured life, where one understands Latin and science and the importance of balance in the world.
Swiftly is Charles’ story. On Thanksgiving, his scientist father receives a phone call from the president warning of the impending destruction of the world. His sister’s mother-in-law recites a mysterious rune over the table, and collapses. Later that night, Charles Wallace goes outside and repeats this invocation against the darkness, calling on “all heaven with its power” to protect him and his world. In response, heaven sends him a winged unicorn. This unicorn, Gaudior, takes Charles Wallace to various moments in time, where he will enter the bodies of various young men to try and pre-emptively stop the world from ending.
It sounds silly, but it’s not. It wasn’t silly when I was nine, and it’s certainly not now (and I’ve reread it many times in the ensuing years). The story is actually fairly grave and delicately drawn. This is a high stakes plot in the global sense–as Charles Wallace struggles to save the world–but each of the individual storylines are fairly intense as well. In one, two brothers battle over the same woman. In another, witch hunts come to a Puritan town. In a third, a disabled author must decide if he should take dangerous risks to his health for the woman he loves.
But the most affecting story is that of Meg’s mother-in-law and her brother Chuck after the childhood death of their father. The pair face poverty and an abusive stepfather, and the future Mrs. O’Keefe must make difficult choices in the service of saving her family. These lives are recounted just as vividly as the life of the Murry family. It’s clear that L’Engle is as capable of speaking honestly about loss, grief, and poverty as she is about unity, joy, and peace.
And I needed that at nine. My father had just passed away the year before. We were poor and we weren’t getting any richer. But L’Engle’s book showed me that a dark life does not mean a life without hope. Even in the darkest times, light, magic, and even unicorns wait for you in your own back yard–so long as you know how to call on them.
Phoebe North was born on her sister’s fifth birthday–December 26th, 1983. She spent the first twenty-two years of her life in New Jersey, where, in the shadows of the Watchung Mountains, she lugged innumerable library books home to read in the bathtub, at the dinner table, in front of the television, and under the blankets with a flashlight when she should have been asleep.
She was a dork: obsessed, variously, with Star Trek, Star Wars (who says you can’t love both?), renaissance festivals, The X-files, Andy Kaufman, Alien Nation, dragons, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. In high school, she dyed her hair every color you can think of–but a Tenctonese can’t hide her spots.
After college, she departed for warmer climes, enrolling in the University of Florida’s MFA program to study poetry. But it was in Gainesville that she learned to embrace her inner dork. After studying children’s literature with scholars Kenneth Kidd and John Cech, she started writing books about magic and love and aliens for teenagers. And realized she loved it almost as much as she loves Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
She now lives in New York State with her cat, her husband, and many licensed novels. She likes to cook, watch Degrassi, paint, play the ukulele, and, of course, write. Despite many soaked pages, she still loves to read in the bath.
She is represented by Michelle Andelman of Regal Literary.
To celebrate Phoebe’s post, she is generously giving away a copy of A Swiftly Tilting Planet, as well as this completely amazing unicorn tee-shirt that, quite honestly, defies description:
HNNNNGGGGG, am I right?! I mean, really. You could have your very own Gaudior!
Shirt details: This tee is an American Apparel shirt customized with spreadshirt.com, and will be available in your size of choice.
To win, simply comment below and tell us about your experience with A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Have you read and loved this book? How did it influence you? What are your middle grade memories?
For an extra entry, tweet about this post and include the link to your tweet in your comment.
This giveaway begins now and ends Monday, June 25 at 11:59 a.m. EST. The winner will be announced shortly thereafter. This giveaway is U.S./Canada only.
EDITED 6/27: This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to the winner . . .
Gabi, I will be contacting you shortly with further info. Thanks to everyone for participating, and stay tuned for more Middle Grade Memories giveaways throughout the summer!
Love Middle Grade Memories? Check back on Mondays and Wednesdays throughout the summer for more in this series!
You can view previous Middle Grade Memories posts below:
- author Marissa Burt and Where the Red Fern Grows
- author Sarvenaz Tash and The Witches
- author Jay Kristoff and The Hobbit
- author Adam-Troy Castro and Dr. Dolittle
- author Greg Leitich Smith and The Enormous Egg
- librarian Rita Meade and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
- author Cristin Terrill and The Baby-Sitters Club