The book was written between 1959 and 1960. L'Engle wrote repeatedly about the writing of the story and the long struggle to get it published. In A Circle of Quiet (1972), she explains that the book was conceived "during a time of transition." After years of living in rural Goshen, Connecticut and running a general store, L'Engle's family, the Franklins, moved back to New York City, first taking a ten-week camping trip across the country and back again. L'Engle writes that "we drove through a world of deserts and buttes and leafless mountains, wholly new and alien to me. And suddenly into my mind came the names, Mrs Whatsit. Mrs Who. Mrs Which." This was in the spring of 1959. L'Engle was reading about quantum physics at the time, which also made its way into the story. When she completed the book in early 1960, however, it was rejected by at least 26 publishers, because it was, in L'Engle's words, "too different," and "because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was really difficult for children, and was it a children's or an adults' book, anyhow?"
In "A Special Message from Madeleine L'Engle" on the Random House website, L'Engle explains another possible reason for the rejections: "A Wrinkle in Time had a female protagonist in a science fiction book," which at the time was uncommon. After trying "forty-odd" publishers (L'Engle later said "twenty-six rejections"), L'Engle's agent returned the manuscript to her. Then at Christmas, L'Engle threw a tea party for her mother. One of the guests happened to know John C. Farrar of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and insisted that L'Engle should meet with him. Although the publisher did not at the time publish a line of children's books, Farrar met L'Engle, liked the novel, and ultimately published it.
The book has been continuously in print since its first publication. The hardback edition is still published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The original blue dust jacket by Ellen Raskin was replaced with new art by Leo and Diane Dillon, with the publication of A Swiftly Tilting Planet in 1978. The book has also been published in a 25th anniversary collectors' edition (limited to 500 signed and numbered copies), at least two book club editions (one hardback, one Scholastic Book Services paperback), as a trade paperback under the Dell Yearling imprint, and as a mass market paperback under the Dell Laurel-Leaf imprint. The cover art on the paperback editions has changed several times since first publication.
The book was reissued by Square Fish in trade and mass market paperback formats in May 2007, along with the rest of the Time Quintet. This new edition includes a previously unpublished interview with L'Engle as well as the text of her Newbery Medal acceptance speech.
Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry's classmates and teachers see her as a troublesome and stubborn student. Her family knows that she is emotionally immature but also sees her capable of doing great things. The family includes her beautiful scientist mother, her absent scientist father, her athletic 10-year-old twin brothers, Sandy and Dennys; and her five-year-old brother Charles Wallace Murry, a child prodigy genius who can sometimes read Meg's mind.
The book begins with the line "It was a dark and stormy night," an allusion to the opening words in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Unable to sleep during a thunderstorm, Meg descends from her attic room to find Charles Wallace sitting at the table drinking milk and eating bread and jam. They are then joined by their mother, and are visited by their new eccentric neighbor, Mrs Whatsit. In the course of conversation, Mrs Whatsit casually mentions there is such a thing as a tesseract, which causes Dr. Murry to almost faint.
The next morning, Meg discovers the term refers to a scientific concept her father was working on before his mysterious disappearance. The following afternoon, Meg and Charles Wallace encounter Meg's schoolmate, Calvin O'Keefe, a high-school junior who, although he is a "big man on campus", considers himself a misfit as well. They then go to visit an old haunted house near town which Charles Wallace already knows is the home of Mrs Whatsit. There they encounter a companion of Mrs Whatsit, the equally strange Mrs Who. She promises that she and her friends will help Meg find and rescue her father. A budding love interest develops between Meg and Calvin. In the evening, Charles Wallace declares it is time for them to go on their mission to save their father. This is accompanied by the appearance of the third member of the "Mrs W's", Mrs Which, who appears to materialize out of nothing.
Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which turn out to be supernatural beings who transport Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O'Keefe through the universe by means of tesseract, a fifth-dimensional phenomenon explained as being similar to folding the fabric of space and time. Their first stop is the planet Uriel, a Utopian world filled with Centaur-like beings who live in a state of light and love. Mrs Whatsit herself shows that she, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which are all these centaur-like creatures in disguise as humans. There the "Mrs W's" reveal to the children that the universe is under attack from an evil being who appears as a large dark cloud called The Black Thing, which is essentially the personification of evil. The children are then taken elsewhere to visit a woman who is a medium (the "Happy Medium") with a crystal ball. In it, they see that Earth is partially covered by the darkness, although great religious figures, philosophers, and artists have been fighting against it. Mrs Whatsit is revealed to be a former star who exploded in an act of self-sacrifice to fight the darkness.
The children then travel to the dark planet of Camazotz, which has "given in" to the Black Thing. Meg's father is trapped there. They find that all the inhabitants behave in a mechanistic way and seem to be under the control of a single mind. At the planet's central headquarters (described as CENTRAL Central Intelligence), they discover a red-eyed man with telepathic abilities who can cast a hypnotic spell over their minds. He claims to know the whereabouts of their father. Charles Wallace deliberately looks into the red eyes of the man, allowing himself to be taken over by the mind controlling planet in order to find their father. Under its influence, he takes Meg and Calvin to the place where Dr. Murry is being held prisoner because he would not succumb to the group mind. The planet turns out to be controlled by an evil disembodied brain with powerful telepathic abilities, which the inhabitants of Camazotz call "IT." Charles Wallace takes them to the place where IT is held. In such close proximity to IT, the children are threatened by a possible telepathic takeover of their minds. With special powers from Mrs Who's glasses, Dr. Murry is able to "tesser" Calvin, Meg and himself away from Camazotz, but Charles Wallace is left behind, still under the influence of IT. Dr. Murry does not know how to protect Meg from the Black Thing which surrounds the planet as they tesser through it, which nearly kills her. When they arrive on the neighboring planet of Ixchel, Meg is nearly frozen, and paralyzed. Calvin and the Murrys are discovered by the planet's inhabitants, large, sightless "beasts" with tentacles and four arms, who prove both wise and gentle. Meg's paralysis is cured under the care of one inhabitant, whom Meg nicknames "Aunt Beast." Meg overcomes her anger at her father for leaving Charles Wallace on Camazotz, realizing that parents can't fix everything, and sometimes children can solve problems themselves.
Then the trio of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which arrive. They charge Meg with rescuing Charles Wallace from IT, because only Meg has a strong enough bond with him. Their father had last seen Charles Wallace when he was a baby and Calvin had only just met him. They each give her a gift. Mrs Whatsit gives Meg her love. Mrs Who quotes to Meg a passage from the Bible about God choosing the foolish of the world to confound the wise, and the weak to defeat the strong. Mrs Which tells Meg that she has one thing that IT does not have. Upon arriving at the building where IT is housed, Charles Wallace is still there under IT's influence. Meg realizes that the one thing she has that IT does not is love. She focuses all her love at Charles Wallace and is able to free him from IT's control. Mrs Who, Mrs Which and Mrs Whatsit tesser the Murrys and Calvin back to Earth. In the vegetable garden they are reunited with Mrs. Murry and the twins. Mrs Whatsit says that, although she and the others like the spectacle of the family reuniting, they have to go somewhere. Before Mrs Whatsit finishes her sentence, she and the others disappear.
In the story, Mrs Who and Charles Wallace explain to Meg that they will be traveling by "wrinkling time" through a tesseract and that "the fifth dimension's a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around. In other words, to put it into Euclid, or old-fashioned plane geometry, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points."
In the novel, the tesseract functions more or less like what in modern science-fiction is called a space warp or a wormhole, a portal from one area of space to another which is possible through the bending of the structure of the space-time continuum. This meaning is unrelated to the mathematical notion of a tesseract, a shape analogous to a cube in a space with four spatial dimensions.
Madeleine L'Engle's fantasy works are in part highly expressive of her Christian viewpoint in a manner somewhat similar to that of Christian fantasy writer C. S. Lewis. She was herself the official writer-in-residence at New York City's Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is known for its prominent position in the liberal wing of the Episcopal Church. L'Engle's liberal Christianity has been the target of criticism from more conservative Christians, especially with respect to certain elements of A Wrinkle in Time.
The theme of picturing the fight of good against evil as a battle of light and darkness is a recurring one. Its manner is reminiscent of the prologue to the Gospel of John, which is quoted within the book. When the "Mrs W's" reveal their secret roles in the cosmic fight against "the darkness" they ask the children to name some figures on Earth (a partially dark planet) who fight the darkness. They name Jesus, and later in the discussion Buddha is named as well, along with various creative artists and philanthropists. The three women are described as ancient star-beings who act as guardian angels.
Further, the themes of "conformity" and the "status quo" are present. It is a generic theme that is within every society there is a powerful dominant group that challenges the minority group. Very few of the powerless members of this group are resilient. In this case, IT is the powerful dominant group that manipulates the planet of Camazotz into conformity (i.e., they all have the same rhythm). Even Charles Wallace falls prey (due to flattery) and is hence persuaded to conform. It is thanks to Meg that she and her family are able to break from conformity. According to the author's granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis, the story wasn't a simple allegory of communism; in a three-page passage that was cut before publication, the process of domination is said to be an outcome of dictatorship under totalitarian regimes, and by an excessive desire of security under democratic countries.
Scholar Jean Fulton writes, "L'Engle's fiction for young readers is considered important partly because she was among the first to focus directly on the deep, delicate issues that young people must face, such as death, social conformity, and truth. L'Engle's work always is uplifting because she is able to look at the surface values of life from a perspective of wholeness, both joy and pain, transcending each to uncover the absolute nature of human experience that they share."
This novel is on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000 at number 23. Reasons given include the book's references to witches and crystal balls, the claim that it "challenges religious beliefs", and the listing of Jesus "with the names of great artists, philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders".
A 2004 study found that it was a common read-aloud book for sixth-graders in schools in San Diego County, California. Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named the book one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children". It was one of the "Top 100 Chapter Books" of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.
In 2016, the novel saw a spike in sales after Chelsea Clinton mentioned it as influential in her childhood in a speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Meg is the outcast of the family and also the oldest child of scientists Alex and Kate Murry. Mathematically brilliant but less than adept at other subjects in school, Meg is "awkward", unpopular, and defensive around authority figures as well as her peers. Although she has the brains to accomplish difficult tasks, she rarely puts her strengths to use. She adores her mother and three brothers especially her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, and weeps much for her missing father. Like many adolescent girls, Meg is unhappy with her physical appearance, particularly her mouse-brown, unruly hair, braces and glasses, and considers herself a "monster" in comparison with her mother. But then she meets Calvin, a boy she falls in love with. She is about thirteen years old, and is a couple of grades below Calvin, who is fourteen years old but in eleventh grade. Introduced on the first page of the book, she is the story's main protagonist.
Charles Wallace is the youngest Murry child. He is very smart and is the most extraordinary and the most vulnerable of the novel's human characters, and the youngest to journey to Camazotz. Charles Wallace did not talk at all until he was nearly four years old, at which time he began to speak in complete sentences. Now five years old, Charles Wallace speaks only to his family, but can empathically or telepathically "read" certain people's thoughts and feelings, and above that has an extraordinary vocabulary. A biological "sport," he is intellectually curious, loving, and unfazed by extraordinary people and events. He was the first to meet the Mrs W's and brought Meg to see them. Initially able to block IT out of his mind, he opens his mind to the Man with Red Eyes and thus falls under IT's control. Charles also was very intelligent.
Calvin is the third oldest of Paddy and Branwen O'Keefe's eleven children, a tall, thin, red-haired 14-year-old high school junior who is not the best in math but has to study to play on the school basketball team, and is one of the popular boys in high school. His mother is a very cranky, tired woman with too many children. Neglected by his own family, Calvin joyfully enters the lives of the Murry family, starting in Chapter Two. He also loves Meg Murry. He shows some signs of being able to communicate telepathically, the same power Charles Wallace seems to have, a technique referred to in later books as kything. He also feels as if he has been hiding his true self all his life, and likes the Murry family much more than his own, which is characterized by abuse and dysfunctional dynamics. Calvin also supported Meg through the adventure.
The three characters of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which are angelic beings who have the ability to travel at will across large stretches of time and space by dematerializing and rematerializing. They do not have a fixed physical form, but appear to humans as elderly women. However, they are capable of metamorphosing into other creatures. All of them are billions of years old. Mrs Whatsit, in particular, was engaged in war with the Darkness.
Mrs Whatsit is first described as a very old woman wrapped in layers of clothes and first appears in chapter one. Charles Wallace, a five-year-old boy in the book, found her in a 'haunted house' in the woods, where she has been living with her two friends, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. Mrs Whatsit is the youngest of the Mrs 'W's (despite being over 2 billion years old), and the best of the three at interacting with the children.
In Chapter Four, the group (Charles Wallace, Calvin, and Meg) witnesses the physical transformation of Mrs Whatsit into a centaur-like winged being on the planet Uriel. Mrs Whatsit is also revealed to have been a star that sacrificed itself by exploding in order to destroy a section of the Black Thing.
Mrs Who is described as a plump woman with spectacles. She communicates in Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, French, Portuguese and Greek, notably quoting William Shakespeare, Pascal, Dante, Seneca, A. Perez, Horace, Cervantes, Delille, Euripides, the Bible and Goethe. Mrs Whatsit explains that Mrs Who finds it "difficult to verbalize" in her own words.
Mrs. Which's physical appearance is not set; she appears as a shimmering light most of the time. However, she does once take on the appearance of a traditional witch, complete with black hat and broom. She does not stay long in this form, though, as corporeal appearance is quite difficult for her to maintain. She first appears at the end of Chapter 3. She is the wisest of, and the clear leader of the three women, and upon appearing, immediately demonstrates her vast knowledge of understanding in tesseract travel. Her distinguishing quirk is her long, drawn-out method of speech, symbolized by doubled and tripled consonants in her words (as in; "Nnoww, cchilldrenn, yyou musstt nott bee frrightennedd att whatt iss ggoingg tto hhappenn,"). She is the one who usually provides the group, most especially Meg, with the clues the children need to solve the problems encountered during their travels.
The Man with Red Eyes is a being whom Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin encounter on their quest to rescue Meg and Charles Wallace's father on the planet Camazotz. He is the Prime Coordinator on that planet. Although he appears human, he explains that IT actually talks through him, like a robot or demented puppet; that he is a part of IT. He entices Charles Wallace to look into his glowing red eyes in order to find his father. When Charles Wallace does so, he too becomes possessed by the mind of IT, after which the Man with Red Eyes drops out of the story. Then, the man with red eyes tries to capture Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace. IT talks through him.
IT is the bodiless telepathic brain that dominates the planet of Camazotz. IT controls all the people in Camazotz and makes people often do the same things together in a mechanistic synchronism as if they were robots. IT speaks through The Man With Red Eyes and later through Charles Wallace, and is functionally part of the interstellar cloud of evil called the Black Thing. IT is described as slightly larger than a human brain. Housed in a dome near the "CENTRAL Central Intelligence" building, IT is said to pulse and quiver on ITs dais. ITs aim is to enforce absolute conformity on Camazotz, with the claimed benefit of eliminating war, unhappiness and inefficiency. However, IT is aware of cruelty, referring to "ITself" as "the Happiest Sadist". While IT usually speaks through one of ITs pawns, IT can speak directly to people through telepathy, but IT only does this once throughout the entire novel. ITs name is always used whenever IT is spoken of (rather than the pronoun "it"), so pervasively that even the word "itself" is rewritten as "ITself."
According to The Mrs W's, the Black Thing is the source of all evil in the universe, and little more is described of it. It is unclear where the Black Thing came from, or what its motivations are. It is even unclear what its relationship to IT is. The Black Thing has been fought by many people, all of whom have added to the world peace, including Mr Murry.
Meg's father is a physicist, researching the mysteries of the space/time continuum, specifically five-dimensional means of travel between planets. He is also the father of Meg, Sandy, Dennys and Charles Wallace. He has been missing for some time as the novel opens. Not even his government colleagues know where he is. He is usually referred to as Mr. Murry. His first name is revealed in the fifth and last Time novel An Acceptable Time. In the television adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, he is renamed Jack. He first appears in a flashback in Chapter One.
Meg's mother is a microbiologist, wife of Dr. Alexander Murry, and mother of the four Murry children. She is considered beautiful by the Murry children and others, having "flaming red hair" and violet eyes. Her physical attractiveness, academic and scientific accomplishments give Meg a bit of an inferiority complex. She is introduced in Chapter One, and usually referred to as Mrs. Murry. As in her husband's case, her first name is given in the subsequently published An Acceptable Time. The television version of her character is renamed Dana.
Sandy and his twin brother Dennys are the middle children in the Murry family, older than Charles Wallace but younger than Meg. They are 10 years old at the time of this book. Sandy is named after his father, Dr. Alex Murry. Although they are certainly intelligent, Sandy and his twin are considered the "normal" children in the family: B students, good at sports, and well able to fit in with their peers. Of the twins, Sandy is generally the leader, and the more pragmatic of the two. He and Dennys first appear in Chapter One.
Dennys is the twin of Sandy Murry. Dennys and his twin are usually inseparable, with Dennys generally following Sandy's lead. However, Dennys is slightly less skeptical than his brother about the strange theories and even stranger adventures of Meg and Charles Wallace. (Note: The name Dennys is a shortened version of "Dionysus", which is the name of a Greek god, but is pronounced the same way as the more common spelling "Dennis.")
Mrs. Buncombe - The wife of the constable in Meg's hometown, who has twelve bed-sheets stolen from her at the beginning of the novel.
Mr. Jenkins - Meg's cold and unfeeling high-school principal who calls her "belligerent and uncooperative" and implies that her family is in denial about Mr. Murry's true whereabouts.
The Happy Medium lives in a cavern on a planet in Orion's Belt. Human in appearance, she is described as wearing a satin gown and a silk turban, and uses a crystal ball to look at distant places and people. Her title comes from the character's jolly temperament, and her preference for looking at happy things. She helps Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace see The Black Thing through the crystal ball and understand what they are fighting against. She is introduced in chapter five. (The name "Happy Medium" is a pun alluding to the common expression for reaching an acceptable compromise: "to find a happy medium.")
Aunt Beast is a character who takes care of Meg on the planet Ixchel after Meg is "frozen" by the Black Thing. Introduced in chapter ten, the character has four arms, no eyes, and numerous long, waving tentacles instead of fingers. Tall, gray in color, sightless and telepathic, Aunt Beast has a motherly, nurturing attitude toward Meg. The name Aunt Beast is one that Meg and the alien come up with together, based on the character's perusal of Meg's mind. The character's actual name, if any, is not given.
Early scenes in the novel take place in and around an unnamed village, later established in An Acceptable Time as being in Connecticut. The nearly 200-year-old Murry farmhouse has parallels in the Austin family series of books and in L'Engle's own Connecticut home, Crosswicks.
When Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace travel to other planets, the ones whose names are given include the following:Camazotz – A planet of extreme, enforced conformity, ruled by a disembodied brain called IT. Camazotz is similar to Earth, with familiar trees such as birches, pines, and maples, an ordinary hill on which the children arrive, and a town with smokestacks, which "might have been one of any number of familiar towns". The horror of the place arises from its ordinary appearance, endlessly duplicated. Thus, the houses are "all exactly alike, small square boxes painted gray"; this characterization has been compared with "the burgeoning American suburbia" such as the post-war housing developments of Levittown, Pennsylvania. The people who live in the houses are similarly described, with "mother figures" who "all gave the appearance of being the same". Camazotz has also been compared with "an early sixties American image of life in a Communist state", a characterization partially dismissed as too glib. The name Camazotz refers to a Mayan bat god, one of L'Engle's many mythological allusions in her nomenclature. It is also stated that Camazotz is a planet that has "given in" to the Black Thing, implying that it was not always the dystopian place that it is at present.
Ixchel – A planet of muted colors, inhabited by tall, sightless creatures with tentacles. It orbits the same sun as Camazotz. The name Ixchel refers to a Mayan jaguar goddess of medicine.
Uriel – A planet with extremely tall mountains, an allusion to the Archangel Uriel. It is inhabited by creatures that resemble winged centaurs. It is "the third planet of the Star Malak (meaning 'angel' in Hebrew) in the spiral nebula Messier 101", which would place it at roughly 25 million light-years from Earth. The site of Mrs Whatsit's temporary transformation into one of these winged creatures, it is the place where "the guardian angels" (i.e. the Mrs W's, who are explicitly referred to as such by Calvin later in the book) "show the questers a vision of the universe that is obscured on earth."
They also stop briefly on an unnamed two-dimensional planet and on an unnamed planet in Orion's belt, the latter of which is the home of the Happy Medium.
In 1994, Listening Library released an unabridged, 4-cassette audio edition read by the author.
On January 10, 2012, Audible releaesd a 50th anniversary edition recorded by Hope Davis.In 2003, a television adaptation of the novel was made by a collaboration of Canadian production companies, to be distributed in America by Disney. The movie was directed by John Kent Harrison, with a teleplay by Susan Shilliday. It cast Katie Stuart as Meg Murry, and Alfre Woodard, Alison Elliott, and Kate Nelligan as Mrs Whatsit, Who, and Which. In an interview with Newsweek, when L'Engle was asked if the film "met her expectations", she said, "Yes, I expected it to be bad, and it is." The film was subsequently released on DVD. The special features included a "very rare" interview with Madeleine L'Engle, discussing the novel.
A theatrical feature film adaptation of the novel is under production by Walt Disney Pictures, to be released in 2018. The film is directed by Ava DuVernay and stars Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Rowan Blanchard, and Zach Galifianakis.
An adaptation by James Sie premiered at the Lifeline Theatre in Chicago, in 1990 and 1998, and will be performed there again in 2017.
John Glore adapted the novel as a play that premiered in 2010. It was written for six actors playing 12 parts. One actor plays Mrs Whatsit, the Man with Red Eyes, and Camazotz Man. Dr. Kate Murry, Mrs Who, Camazotz Woman, and Aunt Beast also share one performer. The stage adaptation premiered in Costa Mesa, California, with productions in Bethesda, Maryland; Cincinnati; Philadelphia; Orlando; Portland, Oregon; and other cities.
An adaptation by Tracy Young premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in April 2014, as well as at colleges and theaters around the U.S.
In 1992, OperaDelaware (known for frequently adapting children's books) staged an opera based on A Wrinkle in Time written by Libby Larsen with a libretto by Walter Green. The review in Philly.com stated "The composer does not place arias and set pieces, but conversational ensembles with spoken dialogue that made the young daughter's climactic but concise song about familial love all the more imposing."
In 2010, Hope Larson announced that she was writing and illustrating the official graphic novel version of the book. This version was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in October 2012.