Dimensionality in Children's Literature

Lisa Hicks

The answer to the question, "Do children's books contain dimensionality?" is obviously a resounding "yes!" However, it is more difficult to determine which children's books contain dimensionality. The answer to this question lies in how we cho ose to define "dimension." Complex people are said to have many dimensions, referring to the varied aspects of their personalities. By this definition, any book from Nancy Drew to Little House on the Prairie is "dimensional" because its ch aracters, plot, and other devices all have many aspects that interweve to form the story. This conception of "dimension," then, is of little use to us now. People often refer to traveling to other dimensions, implying that a dimension is a destination, a place removed from our own world. This conception does not help us to narrow our scope, either, for it is the aim of all books to take readers to a world different from their own. If these everyday notions of dimensionality do not help us, to what do we turn?

Perhaps a mathematical idea of dimension--length, width, height, etc.--will help us. But perhaps this definition is too limiting. Most would agree that Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz have dimensional aspects, yet they d o not seem "overtly mathematical." It would seem that "dimensionality," for our purposes, is neither "just math" nor "just a particular aspect" but some combination of the two.

Now that we have defined "dimensionality" (or at least vaguely established some parameters), we can move on to a discussion of dimensional literature. Often, dimensional literature invovles transporting people to other worlds, and much dimensional lit erature falls into the category of science fiction or fantasy. Many dimensional writers (like C.S. Lewis or Madeleine L'Engle want to deal with "big issues" like good and evil, love and hate, and religion in their works, and it is often easier to tackle such topics when they are removed from the readers' world. Using other worlds as a vehichle for commentary on this one is one of the most prevailent themes in dimensional literature.

Dimensional literature is generally "ageless," containing elements that would appeal to adult readers as well as to young ones. Most youngsters do not pick up on the religious allegory of Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia,, and the political satire of Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Ozis generally lost on children. Thus, there is, in a sense, another dimension to dimensional literature; much of it can be read either on a literal level or an allegorical one.

These common themes in dimensional literature are exemplified in several works. The most obvious example of dimensional children's literature is Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the Newberry Medal. This novel is "dimensional" i n every sense of the word. But let us confine ourselves to the mathematical dimensionality. Most of the mathematics of the book is explained at the beginning of Chapter Five, which is entitled "The Tesseract." In the example given as an explanation, a small insect is on one side of a lady's skirt. The bug wishes to travel to the other side of the skirt. If he must crawl around the skirt in a straight line, this is quite a distance. However, if the skirt folded (or "wrinkled") so that the point where the bug is and the point where he wishes to be are brought together, he has practically no distance to travel. In the novel, this "folding" idea is extended onto a grander scale. Readers are asked to imagine that one can "fold" space, making it possibl e to travel to planets light-years away in mere seconds. For the purposes of this book, time is considered the fourth dimension, and a tesseract, the mechanism allowing this "folding" of space, is the fifth.

Quite similar to L'Engle's work in subject matter are the books in C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis does not explain the mathematics of space/time travel, but his books also deal with children who have important missions in fantasy worl ds. Like L'Engle's Meg, Lewis's Edmund learns the importance of love and faith.

Like Lewis, L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll lived years before Einstein's theory of relativity, so the conception of time as a fourth dimension was not availavle to them as it was to L'Engle. Thus, though their books contain charcters that travel to d ifferent worlds, they do not provide mathematical explanations as L'Engle did. It is interesting, though, to relate L'Engle's tesseract to Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Perhaps the tornad o that carried Dorothy from Kansas to Oz crossed a tesseract. Maybe Alice's looking-glass served as a tesseract. Such speculation adds a sort of "dimensionality after the fact," interpreting the novels in an anachronistic way.

A great deal of dimensionality lies in interpretation. When the "degrees of freedom" conception of dimensionality is considered, things like color and sound become, in a sense, "dimensions." Because of the variety of interpretations, dimensionality b ecomes closely linked to ambiguity. A wonderful example of the relationship between dimensions and ambiguity is Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. In this novel, a young boy is transported to a world where figurative phrases are given literal meanings. For instance, a watchdog has four legs, a head, a tail, and a body like a clock. The Point of View is the place where one goes to see. Though not overtly mathematical, this novel contains enough dimensional aspect to be worthy of note.

This discussion of dimensional literature barely scratches the surface, for, in a sense, all literature is dimensional. Hopefully, though, this discussion will make readers more aware of dimensionality in the world of books and in our own world.