Monday, January 26, 2009

Natalie Babbitt

Born July 28, 1932 in Dayton, Ohio

Natalie Babbitt is an American author who seems as if she would make a wonderful neighbor or conversation companion. One of those people with whom you would like to spend a summer evening out on the front porch, ice tea in hand, talking slowly and comfortably about this and that. Deeply thoughtful and with strong opinions but also a person open to changing her mind as she continually reinterprets evidence and her life experience. Someone very humble about her fame and accomplishments. Someone deeply engaged and passionate about the story itself rather than necessarily its deeper meanings.

Her fame rests almost solely upon a single remarkable book, Tuck Everlasting but her other books have a life of their own. She is one of those authors who follow particular interests - a single idea may give rise to a complete novel. While there are some themes and characteristics that flow from one work to another, Babbitt is not a mill; each book has its own nature and distinct features. She explores and experiments all the time.

Babbitt has had an interesting career, producing fifteen picture books and novels of her own as well as eleven others where she has illustrated the single book for children written by her husband and ten collections of poems by Valerie Worth. There is something of an arc to her work, from art to story to art.

Born during the Great Depression, she grew up in Ohio with her older sister and her parents in the challenging circumstances afflicting all Americans of that age and that left its mark on that generation. "Plagued as we were by the 1930s Depression, there were many things we didn't have. Looking back, I know, now, that we had all the things that really matter."

Her father was a businessman with a great love of the English language whose daily conversation and playfulness with words was transmitted to his daughter. Her mother, an artist turned homemaker, likewise enjoyed books, reading to her regularly and particularly encouraging her daughter's interest in art and illustration. These interests came to together in a fixed plan at an early age.

I became a writer more or less by accident. It was certainly not part of my plan, a plan quite settled when I was nine. That year, my mother sent away for a very nice edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and I fell in love at once with John Tenniel's pictures because they were beautiful and funny both at once. I was used to pictures that were beautiful and sweet, or cartooned and funny, but this was a new combination. It made a deep impression on me. I had already decided to be an artist, and now, thanks to Tenniel, I knew what sort of artist: I would be an illustrator of children's books, and I would draw funny, beautiful pictures in pen and ink.

Finishing high school, Babbitt attended Smith College in Massachusetts where she graduated in 1954 with a degree in art and where she also met her husband, Samuel Fisher Babbitt whom she married the year she graduated and with whom she had two sons and a daughter.

Initially, Babbitt's time and attention were completely focused on her new family. Eventually though she returned to her nine-year old self's plan. Her husband had early aspired to be a writer before eventually becoming a university administrator. One of his stories was a tale for children, The Forty-Ninth Magician. Natalie Babbitt took up pen and ink once again after so many years and illustrated the book. The Forty-Ninth Magician was published in 1966. Having enjoyed this re-engagement with art, Natalie Babbitt discovered that she needed a fresh supply of manuscripts. With her husband now moving into education and out of writing books, Babbitt solved the problem by writing her own stories.

Her first book was a picture book which she wrote and illustrated, Dick Foote and the Shark, which came out in 1967. For the next ten years, she published a new book on average, each year. Among these were seven novels for children, three books which she illustrated for Valerie Worth and a further picture book by herself.

Babbitt's first book for independent readers and older was The Search for Delicious. This was quickly followed by six further stories in quick succession, each unique from the other and all self-illustrated; Kneeknock Rise, The Something, Goody Hall, The Devil's Story Book, Tuck Everlasting, The Eyes of the Amyrillis, and Herbert Rowbarge.

By the late seventies, Babbitt was beginning to show a predilection, despite her success as a writer, of returning to her art roots. She illustrated a series of poetry books by Valerie Worth. Through the eighties and nineties there have been fewer novels and the illustrations for any and all her works have becoming more and more developed moving from simple pen and ink illustrations initially to beautiful paintings. The artist has returned to her studio.

Nearly half of Babbitt's own works (eight out of seventeen) are still in print though only Tuck Everlasting would attract particularly significant name recognition. Interestingly, Tuck Everlasting was one of those books that almost completely escaped the attention of the various awards committees the year it was published in 1975. It managed to scrape up a Horn Book Fanfare award but that was it. This is akin to great movies that never won an Oscar Best Picture such as The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Citizen Kane, Psycho, Vertigo, Fargo, E.T., etc..

Tuck Everlasting routinely shows up on lists of the 100 best children's books. So popular has it been that, despite only receiving one award the year it was published, Tuck Everlasting is Number Eight on TTMD's list of all time favorite children's books which is compiled from awards citations but also from frequency of mentions from Library Lists, Academic citations, and from independent sources (such as enthusiastic amateurs, newspaper readers, NEA, etc.) Only twenty-eight of the top 100 hundred books were written since 1975, and Tuck Everlasting is one of that select few.

Tuck Everlasting is the story of a young girl, Winnie, who discovers seventeen-year-old Jesse Tuck drinking from a spring hidden on her family's property. Winnie learns that Jesse Tuck and his family are an ageless pioneering family who originally discovered the spring and its magical property. Those that drink from it neither age nor die. Their discovery of what seems at first to be a heaven sent gift is quickly revealed to them as a mixed blessing. It is the potential gift which Winnie must consider. The ending is one of the most satisfyingly poignant in children's literature.

Like Hugh Lofting, Babbitt's success and appeal to children is in part based on the fact that she writes a terrifically gripping story but also in that she never writes down to them. I suspect that many parents appreciate Tuck Everlasting because it is one of the few children's books that introduce children to the idea of death in a fashion that neither belabors the issue nor reduces it to inconsequentiality.

I think the real appeal of Tuck Everlasting though, other than that it is so felicitously written, is that it does not patronize children and is probably one of the first books that they will have encountered that invites them not just to read and absorb but to consider something philosophically. Children are invited to think about the nature and morality of death in its own fashion and context and to arrive at conclusions of their own.

A little bit of mystery, a little bit of fantasy, a little bit of romance, a little bit of adventure. These are all the spices that go into a recipe that is really rather unique and distinctive. Combine this with a respectful regard for children as readers and thinkers, a light humor, and a gentle invasive writing style and you have a recipe for a great book.

There are a few elements that do show up with some reliability in Babbitt books. Just as Tuck Everlasting harkens back to the Greek myth of Eos and Tithonus, there are elements of folklore and ancient myth in many of Babbitt's stories. A light humor also is a staple even when she is dealing with the most serious of subjects. Finally there is simply the idiosyncratic choice of her subjects: Death, Pirates, Self-Deception, Linguistic Argumentation - you never know quite where she will head next.

Rather than go through each of her other books, all of which are worth a read, let me end with some selections from Babbitt herself in various essays. Think of yourself on that front porch, ice tea in hand, enjoying the conversation.

On stories and teaching

But when we're children, we are the odd man out. Some of the reason for this is that we don't know how to communicate our feelings very well, except through actions, but our actions are very often misinterpreted, and we are not very often treated like people. We are treated mostly like lumps of clay to be molded, blank pages to be written on, unformed and in continual need of being taught.

Ah, there's the rub. In continual need of being taught. If there is one thing wrong with books written for children -- most from the nineteenth century and too many written since -- it is exactly that: too many adults saying to themselves that a children's book is a tool for teaching.

When I was a child, I hated stories that tried to teach me things. Mostly those things were moral things: "You'd better be good or else." This is one reason why I loved Alice in Wonderland so much. It didn't --and doesn't -- have anything to teach except, maybe, that adults are extremely silly.

Books that are too nice

Another thing I've brought out of my childhood into this strange little island called Children's Book Land is an impatience with a story that presents an all-pink world. My life, and the lives of all the children I knew, was never all pink. Mine was free of genuine grief in that no one I loved died until I was well into my teens. But I knew about grief from observing it in less lucky friends, and I knew about poverty and disabilities, too, in the same way. I had, if not grief, certainly sorrows of my own, and plenty of unsolvable problems. And more than anything else, I had all the frustrations of being powerless. So did we all. And then, since World War II began for the United States when I was in the fourth grade, I also knew about nationally sanctioned hatred of other countries and fear of enemy bombers. Our grammar school was a testing place for air-raid sirens, and so we all knew about that particular fear. We dealt with it, one way or another, but we knew the world wasn't all pink. I resented books that tried to tell me it was, and if I came across one, I wouldn't finish it.

But as adults we seem to be afraid, some of us, of telling the truth. We seem to feel we need to protect children from anything that will show that their all-pink world has a lumpy underbelly with discolored spots on it. We'd rather tell them that everything's perfect and keep the truth for later, when they're teenagers, maybe, at which point we seem to think it's time to throw despair at them as a kind of rite of passage. I like to call it the "last chance for gas before the thruway" syndrome.

And yet, if we can look back at our child selves, honestly and openly, we find every time that we knew the hard stuff, the bad stuff, was there. There wasn't any way to protect us from it. So perky little stories with cute little pictures were very often anathema. At least they were to me. I insisted on happy endings, but they had to be happy endings that followed logically from the action of the story. Anything else was irritating.

On earnestness in writing

Earnestness to me means solemn, humorless sincerity; whereas seriousness means honesty -- and honesty, in this case, means showing as many sides of life as you can. There is always a humorous side, even if the humor is rueful. . . .

Earnestness doesn't get us very far. At its worst it only increases a feeling of being pressed, stressed, and driven. But humor can take us a long way. It doesn't have to be a pie-in-the-face kind of humor, though there's certainly a place for that. What it does have to be, for me, anyway, is an acknowledgment, rueful or otherwise, of the craziness of humanity. Lewis Carroll understood it perfectly, and expressed it in ways that made me laugh out loud when I was nine years old. Nine-year-olds don't have a lot of rue in their natures. That comes later. I wouldn't have been especially moved and amused by a quote from Mark Twain which I now keep nearby at all times: "When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained."

On her rules for writing

Here are three things, then, that my own inner child keeps reminding me to be careful about: don't preach, don't be dishonest, and don't be earnest. Maybe that sounds as if there isn't a lot that you can do in a story for children. But yes, there is one thing that is the single most important thing of all: you can tell an entertaining story. I don't seem to have any more ideas for entertaining stories, I'm sorry to say. Not stories, anyway, for those very special people who are in what is clearly the last, best, greatest year of childhood -- the fifth grade. After the age of ten or eleven, if you ask me, things don't get really good again until you're thirty. So I'm concentrating on picture books now. I always liked picture-making better than story-making, anyway. When I was picture-book age, I never thought about growing up to be a book illustrator, the way I did in fifth grade. No, as I recall, when I was four years old I wanted to be a pirate. But I was just as demanding then, where books were concerned, as I was six or seven years later. I disliked The Little Engine That Could and loved Millions of Cats (both Putnam). Which is to say that I loved books that didn't preach, weren't dishonest, and never sounded earnest.

As I said before, I know now that I was not unique. So when I remember myself as the kind of child I really was, I know I am describing, to a very large extent, all children. I will conclude with a quote about the child within, from The Rebel Angels by Canadian writer Robertson Davies, which says it better than anyone else ever said it.

'What really shapes and conditions and makes us is somebody only a few of us ever have the courage to face: and that is the child you once were, long before formal education ever got its claws into you -- that impatient, all-demanding child who wants love and power and can't get enough of either and who goes on raging and weeping in your spirit till at last your eyes are closed and all the fools say, "Doesn't he look peaceful?" It is those pent-up, craving children who make all the wars and all the horrors and all the art and all the beauty and discovery in life, because they are trying to achieve what lay beyond their grasp before they were five years old.'

All from an essay Drawing on the Child Within from Horn Book May/June 1993

On writing and celebrity

The point I'm trying to make is that storytellers and picture-makers had better not get themselves confused with their product.

We'd better not believe that we ourselves are some kind of beacon to readers. If something we have created somehow becomes a beacon, then we'd better remember it didn't do that all by itself. It had a whole lot of help from teachers and librarians. It would not, in fact, have attracted even a dimwitted night moth, let alone a bright fifth-grader, if someone hadn't held it up to be seen. People say a lot of nice things to me about Tuck Everlasting (Farrar), and I'm grateful for every word. But the fact is that I know perfectly well, from the letters I get from the children themselves, that very few of them would ever get past chapter two without a gentle but firm push from their teachers.

So here's where I stand on all this: Pictures and stories can be wonderful, and life would be very dreary without them. We are lucky to be living at a moment in time when there is a great accumulated wealth of good books for our children. But so great is the accumulated wealth, that, finally, those of us who are making the new stories and the new pictures don't matter. I will repeat that: we don't matter. Childhood is so brief — so achingly brief and there isn't nearly enough time for the children to get around to what's already there for them to look at and to read. If there were no new pictures and stories for the next fifty years, children would notice no lack at all. Think about it. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is still going strong after 128 years; Treasure Island after 110. The Wind in the Willows is eighty-five years old; Winnie-the-Pooh is sixty-seven; Millions of Cats (Putnam) is sixty-five; and Mary Poppins is fifty-nine. Even Charlotte's Web (Harper), which somehow seems new, is forty-one years old this year, and Where the Wild Things Are (Harper) is thirty. I'm not saying that we want the children to know only the older, proven books, but on the other hand we don't want them to miss those books, either. So we don't need the four or five thousand new books that make their appearance every year. We simply don't need them.

So no one should try to make celebrities out of us.

From an essay Drawing on the Child Within from Horn Book September/October 1994

On using children's books for moral instruction

I don't believe in using fiction to teach anything except the appreciation of fiction. At least, not to children. It seems to me that there is enough difficulty getting them to read in the first place, and the more lessons you clog up reading with, the more of a lesson you make of it. Book discussions are a good thing because everyone needs help in learning to read critically -- or, perhaps I should say, in learning to .think critically. And if a given piece of fiction deals with a particular problem of being human, then it is only natural that the problem be dealt with in the discussion. I know that Tuck Everlasting suggests some moral problems, and it's perfectly reasonable to talk about those in a book discussion. But, you know, it's interesting to see, from the letters I get, which of those problems really interest the children. Curiously, no child has ever written to me about whether or not Mae Tuck should have killed the man in the yellow suit. They always write about whether or not Winnie Foster should have drunk the spring water and gone off with the fascinating Jesse Tuck. I suppose they feel that the man in the yellow suit, like the Wicked Witch of the West, needed killing, and so it's all right. The killing has bothered some grownups, but the children don't seem to turn a hair over it. They also do not write to me about whether Winnie did the right thing in helping Mae Tuck escape from jail. . . .

I think the single most attractive quality to the stories that have lasted is that their heroes and heroines defy authority and not only get away with it but also create positive and happy endings thereby. To defy authority is to be socially irresponsible, isn't it? But, you see, children are small and surrounded by rules and restrictions and caveats and coercion. Their longing for independence and self-determination is very strong. So is their passion for justice, which they see little enough of, by their lights, in the world around them. If we leave them alone to identify with Alice and with Peter, and with Mary and Colin, and with all the other storybook rebels, we are allowing the books to work the magic of identification, and spread the balm of good therapy on their bruises. A good children's book says to the reader, "Yes, Virginia, you can escape the pinches of your life and, for a little time, make a difference in the world, even if it is only vicarious." If we turn children's stories into handbooks for proper behavior, we will subvert their purpose and destroy their magic, and do the one other thing which is the saddest of all: make of reading a chore, a drag, just another lesson. And when that happens, the joy of reading evaporates. . . .

Yes, our society is messy; yes, our children need to learn to care for each other and to be, in short, socially responsible. But in all our zeal, I hope we can find a way to teach them without destroying more than we create. I hope our teachers will find a way to keep on reading great children's stories aloud in their classrooms for no other reason than the joy those stories will bring. I hope the subsequent book discussions will stick to the questions raised by the stories themselves and not get guided, uncomfortably, down other paths. Because if we weigh the stories down with the baggage of unrelated lessons, they will sink and disappear. And then there will be a lot of lamentation in the children's book section of that great library up in heaven, where, I like to imagine, Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie and E. B. White and Beatrix Potter and Arnold Lobel and Arthur Rackham and Margot Zemach and all the others who have added so much to our lives meet every morning for milk and cookies and have a good time talking shop.
A good story is sufficient unto the day. It is complete as it stands. If it has something to teach, let it teach in its own sufficiency. Let it keep its magic and fulfill its purpose. In other words, let it be.

From an essay Protecting Children's Literature from Horn Book November/December 1990.

On investing effort

It was . . . the best lesson I learned in four years of college: to wit, you have to work hard to do good work. I had always done what came easily, and what came easily had always been good enough. It was not good enough at Smith, and would never be good enough again.

From Something About the Author Autobiography Series

This book list is divided into three sections:

(1) Picture Books

(2) Books for Independent Readers

(3) Natalie Babbitt Bibliography

The list begins below with Picture Books, but you can use the following link to skip directly to the Independent Readers or the Natalie Babbitt Bibliography sections.

Go to books for Independent Readers

Go to the Natalie Babbitt Bibliography

Picture Books

All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Suggested

Peacock and Other Poems by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Suggested

Independent Reader

Tuck Everlasting written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Highly Recommended

Devil's Storybook written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Recommended

The Eyes of the Amaryllis written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Recommended

Jack Plank Tells Tales written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Recommended

The Search for Delicious written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Suggested

Kneeknock Rise written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Suggested

Goody Hall written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt Suggested

Natalie Babbitt Bibliography

The Forty-Ninth Magician by Samuel Fisher Babbitt and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1966

Dick Foote and the Shark written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1967

Phoebe's Revolt written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1968

The Search for Delicious written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1969

Kneeknock Rise written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1970

The Something written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1970

Goody Hall written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1971

Small Poems by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1972

The Devil's Story Book written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1974

Tuck Everlasting written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1975

More Small Poems by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1976

The Eyes of the Amaryllis written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1977

Still More Small Poems by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1978

Curlicues: The Fortunes of Two Pug Dogs by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1980

Herbert Rowbarge written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1982

Small Poems Again by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1985

Other Small Poems Again by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1986

The Devil's Other Storybook written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1987

All the Small Poems by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1987

Nellie: A Cat on Her Own written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1989

Bub; or, The Very Best Thing written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1994

All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 1994

Ouch!: A Tale from Grimm by Grimm and illustrated by Fred Marcellino 1998

Elsie Times Eight written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 2001

Peacock and Other Poems by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 2002

Jack Plank Tells Tales written and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt 2007

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