Natalie Babbitt: Truth in Fairy Tales

“ makes me uncomfortable to know that my story Tuck Everlasting is required reading in some classrooms. My sympathies are entirely with the children, for many will react to Tuck as I well might have with a shudder. Many will find its language too ‘fancy,’ its pace too slow, its topic unsettling, the behavior of its hero incomprehensible.” — Natalie Babbitt in "Saying What You Think." The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress*

It is perhaps surprising that an author would almost prefer her books were not required reading.  But it is less surprising in Natalie Babbitt’s case. Her best-beloved books are sweet and strong and true in spirit while containing enough wonder and marvel to lend a sparkle to a reader’s otherwise mundane childhood. This children’s author, like many of the best, remembers what it is like to be a child. What she liked to read—and what she didn’t. She understands that children have strong opinions on their favorite books, even if they may not be comfortable in expressing them.  She certainly remembers what she liked:

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 anyway 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.

—Natalie Babbitt in "Drawing on the Child Within: Writing Entertaining Children's Books with Honest Characters" in The Horn Book Magazine**

It is her honesty in creating characters who deal with “the bad stuff” that has made several of her books into modern classics. There might be fairy tale Tuck Everlastingelements--a heartbroken mermaid or a family who drank from a spring of eternal life--but what really matters comes from the human characters.  There is fantastic magic in The Search for Delicious and Tuck Everlasting but it’s not the main thing in the books. When Winnie meets the live-forever Tucks, she is delighted by their kindness and charm, but she is also aware that they have their very human imperfections which sometimes make her uncomfortable.  Likewise, young Gaylen, charged by the king with finding a consensus on what is delicious, becomes disillusioned when the kingdom falls apart from trying to answer a simple question. He really wants to walk away from the whole thing, and it’s perfectly understandable.

As to her well-remembered childhood, when she was growing up in Depression-era Ohio, the family had some difficult economic times, but they remained strong and loving.  Natalie’s mother read to her daughters and encouraged them in their reading and art. Natalie enjoyed discovering myths and fairy tales on her own and knew from a young age that she wanted to be an artist. She found Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations to Alice in Wonderland to be very inspiring, as was the story itself. Alice is portrayed as a sensible young girl surrounded by madcap (or rather a Mad Hatter) fantasy. By the time Natalie was nine, she had decided to become a book illustrator. She kept at it, specializing in pen and ink drawings, and studied art at Smith College. The same year she graduated, she married and was soon raising a family. The first book she illustrated, published in 1966, was a children’s fantasy story written by her husband. Soon, he became too busy with his college work to write books, so she wrote her own. In 1969, The Search for Delicious was named a Best Book by the New York Times.

She went on to write and illustrate books that were conspicuous for their wonderful use of language, humor, and thoughtfulness.  Later on, she turned her talents back to illustrating others’ works. Her most recent book, The Moon Over High Street, like Tuck Everlasting, focuses on what’s really important in life when a young boy in a happy but poor family is offered adoption into a wealthier one.

Natalie Babbitt will be a featured speaker at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., September 22-23, 2012, on the National Mall. Can’t make it to the festival or can’t wait to learn more? You can watch her 30-minute speech in a Web-cast from the 2001 festival.

Fast Facts:

Born: July 28, 1932, in Dayton, Ohio
Birth name: Natalie Zane Moore
Education: Smith College, B.A., 1954, in art
Married: June 26, 1954, to Samuel Fisher Babbitt, a college administrator
Children: Christopher Converse, Thomas Collier II, Lucy Cullyford

Selected Awards:

  • The Search for Delicious was named Best Book of 1969 for Children Ages Nine to Twelve, New York Times.The Search for Delicious
  • Kneeknock Rise was named an ALA (American Library Association) Notable Book in 1970; a Newbery Honor Book in 1971; and a Horn Book Honor citation.
  • Goody Hall earned the Children’s Spring Book Festival Honor Book citation, was a Children’s Book Council Showcase title, and was given a School Library Journal Honor List citation
  • The Devil’s Storybook received citations as an ALA Notable Book, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and the Horn Book Honor List as well a National Book Award nomination.
  • Tuck Everlasting received, among its many awards, the Christopher Award for juvenile books, an ALA Notable Book citation, International Reading  Association choices list citation, and a listing in School Library Journal’s 100 Books That Shaped the Century.

Biographical Articles
Use your CRRL card to access these databases. They are an excellent choice for research reports:

From Gale Biography in Context:
"Natalie Babbitt." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 51. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
"Natalie (Zane) Babbitt." St. James Guide to Children's Writers. Gale, 1999.

From Gale Student Resources in Context
Hearne, Betsy. "Circling Tuck: An Interview with Natalie Babbitt." The Horn Book Magazine Mar. 2000: 153.
"Natalie (Zane Moore) Babbitt." U*X*L Junior DISCovering Authors. Detroit: U*X*L, 2003.

From Literature Resource Center
**Babbitt, Natalie. "Drawing on the Child Within: Writing Entertaining Children's Books with Honest Characters." The Horn Book Magazine 69.3 (May-June 1993): 284-290. Rpt. in Children's Literature Review. Detroit: Gale.
*Babbitt, Natalie. "Saying What You Think." The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 39.2 (Spring 1982): 80-89. Rpt. in Children's Literature Review. Ed. Rebecca Blanchard. Vol. 75. Detroit: Gale Group, 2002.

More on the Web:

Natalie Babbitt from
An autobiographical essay with a photograph and links to a lengthy interview transcript.

Natalie Babbitt on Moon Over High Street
In this two and ½ minute talk, the author speaks about her recent book and reads a segment from it.

Natalie Babbitt Quizzes
If you’ve read either The Search for Delicious or Tuck Everlasting, try these quizzes! Warning: some contain plot spoilers.

Natalie Babbitt Quotes
Good Reads gives dozens of memorable quotes from her works.

Q & A with Natalie Babbit