Top 100 Children's Novels #16: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
#16 Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (1975)
Imagine coming upon a fountain of youth in a forest. To live forever–isn’t that everyone’s ideal? Babbitt asks profound questions about the meaning of life and death, and leaves the reader with a greater appreciation for the perfect cycle of nature. Intense and powerful, exciting and poignant, Tuck Everlasting will last forever–in the reader’s imagination. – Kristi Hazelrigg
A beautiful story about mortality. Gets you thinking without being morbid. – Nicole Johnston
Wise and engrossing. The writing burns from the first page. – Emily Myhr
I did not think that I liked Tuck Everlasting when I was a kid. I was a sensitive child, which is to say, a wimp. Happy endings were far preferable to unhappy. Life was to be tied up in a neat little bow, thank you very much. None of this moral complexity business. And unhappy children’s literature? Every time I met an ambiguous ending or one that didn’t ascribe to my strict sense of how-a-story-should-end (Stuart Little stands out in the mind) I was perturbed. Seriously perturbed. Tuck Everlasting perturbed me. Yet even as I lamented the lack of a joyous finale as well as the fate of the poor eternal toad at the end (the true victim of the book, in my eyes) I was fascinated with this story. Couldn’t stop thinking about it. Here was a book that brought up an issue that humanity has grappled with since the dawn of time. I couldn’t look away. I still can’t.
The plot from American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction reads, “The heroine of Tuck Everlasting, Winnie Foster, is an overprotected child who inhabits a no nonsense house guarded by ‘a capable iron fence.’ Unaware that the spring of eternal life quite literally bubbles in the nearby wood, Winnie has lived in the protected oasis of her home for ten years. When she finally ventures into the woods, she is kidnapped by the Tuck family, who have innocently drunk from the fountain of youth with pernicious results. They learn that immortality without growth, change, or death is an infernal paradise–a curse, not a blessing. The Tucks realize that their secret has cosmic implications, that it must be guarded from the villainous ‘man-in-the-yellow-suit’ at all costs. When this evil person threatens to use the secret to acquire wealth and power for himself and to use Winnie as a freak, after he forces her to drink the water, Mae Tuck kills him in an act of violent retribution. While the act resembles the swift justice of a folktale, it has complicated consequences. Winnie in her turn must act to save Mae, whom she loves, and to protect the secret, which she is not sure she believes. Eventually the reader learns that Winnie has embraced her mortality and affirmed her humanity, her place on the wheel, by choosing to become ‘Winnie Foster Jackson, Dear Wife, Dear Mother’.”
Back in 2000 Betsy Hearne interviewed Natalie Babbitt in the March/April 2000 issue of Horn Book about the book for its 25th Anniversary. About the story’s creation Babbitt said, “It was hard to find the right way to begin it. There were a couple of other beginnings that aren’t around anymore, because there were so many piles of paper that I finally gave everything to the University of Connecticut. But once I got started it was easy–partly because of the setting, which is a real place. It’s always fun to write about a real place. In upstate New York we had a cabin on a pond, exactly like the Tucks’. . . . Everything about that place in the book is true, including the mouse living in a drawer. (It was there when we first moved in, but we didn’t keep it the way the Tucks kept theirs.) Everything about the pond, about toads–there were a lot of toads there–and frogs, everything is exactly the way it was in real life. All I had to do was fit my characters into the setting.”
It was particularly interesting hearing about her process on the book. In that same interview with Hearn, Babbitt says, “As far as drafts are concerned, the way I’ve always worked is different from some of my colleagues who go from A all the way to Z and then start all over again to do their rewriting. That’s a perfectly good way, but I rewrite each sentence when I come to it until it’s just the way I want it. So in that sense Tuck didn’t take any longer to write than any of my other books, about a year–nine months to a year, something like that. My editor, Michael di Capua, did some editing on it, but he did more boosting than anything else. He’s very good at that.”
It is nice to see this book crack the Top 20 like it has on this list. Folks have been debating the “classic” status of this book for years. Heck, fellow author Tim Wynne-Jones even wrote an article about it in the November/December 2000 issue of Horn Book called “Future Classics”. Said he, “My guess is that in the next hundred years they aren’t going to find a cure for death. Our children’s children’s children’s children’s children might live to be a hundred and forty–poor souls–but while they are still children, each of them will one day suddenly realize, as have we in our twentieth-century childhoods, that he or she will not live forever. And it would be nice, on that strange morning, if a kind bibliobot put Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting into the child’s hand. I think, a century from now, that Tuck will still have something essential to say about the human condition. And how well it does so, with flawless style, in words that are exact and simple and soothing and right.”
If Charlotte’s Web is the book that introduces many children to death, Tuck Everlasting is the book that makes them sit down and think about it.
Babbitt also has some choice words about that magnificent villain without a name, the man in the yellow suit. “I have known a couple of people who are like him, one of whom he is modeled after–a man now dead who was a completely amoral person, neither good nor bad. To be bad you have to have some understanding of good and then choose to go against it. That’s the way the Christian or Judaic devil is; he has been in heaven and he goes to hell. The man in the yellow suit isn’t like that. He doesn’t see good or evil. He sees what he wants. He’s totally selfish, totally self-absorbed, and that to me is much scarier than somebody who is simply bad and going against the law, because there’s no way to reach him.”
That’s one of the joys of finding out information about Ms. Babbitt. The fact of the matter is that she’s a magnificent essayist in her own right. Some authors work solely on the fictional side of things and don’t bother with articles, essays, and the like. Ms. Babbitt, on the other hand, is just a brilliant writer to watch, no matter what she’s writing.
For example, in a May/June 1993 Horn Book article called “Drawing on the Child Within: Writing Entertaining Children’s Books with Honest Characters” Babbitt mentions Tuck Everlasting only once directly, to make a rather good point. Says she, “… the sad thing is that even if you aren’t writing teaching books, the children, poor things, accustomed as they are to being taught, will very often assume that you are trying to teach them. I get letters from readers explaining to me, in a tired way, what they have learned from my books, especially Tuck Everlasting. This is one of the downsides to this business of using stories instead of textbooks to teach reading. The stories are turning, themselves, into textbooks. I worry about that. Reading stories ought to be for pleasure, not schoolwork. So I say, when I answer letters like those I’ve just described, that I wasn’t trying to teach anything.”
We talk about great crimes in Newbery history, but many of us forget that Tuck Everlasting did not garner a National Book Award or any kind of a Newbery in its year. What were the Newbery winners instead? Well, the award proper went to Susan Cooper’s The Grey King and the Honor books were The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis and Dragonwings and Laurence Yep. Not a bad selection by any stretch of the imagination. You can see how easily The Grey King could have slipped down and allowed Tuck to carry the gold, though. One wonders what the arguments against it could have been.
- Read some of the book here.
Booklist (and the aforementioned Betsy Hearne) said of it, “With its serious intentions and light touch the story is, like the Tucks, timeless.”
Horn Book said, “Rarely does one find a book with such prose. Flawless in both style and structure, it is rich in imagery and punctuated with light fillips of humor.”
The New Yorker called it, “A fearsome and beautifully written book that can’t be put down or forgotten.”
The New York Times Book Review said of it, “Exciting and excellently written.”
And The Boston Globe concluded that, “Natalie Babbitt’s great skill is spinning fantasy with the lilt and sense of timeless wisdom of the old fairy tales. . . . It lingers on, haunting your waking hours, making you ponder.”
That classic yellow cover we all remember on the first editions of this book? Well, much like authors Louise Fitzhugh or Lois Lowry, Natalie Babbitt is also an artist and she painted that watercolor for the jacket to (according to Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children), “create the feeling and mood that she wanted.” There have since been others.
And I am happy to report that Ms. Babbitt continues to write novels to this very day. Her most recent novel, the 2012 Moon Over High Street, caused Kirkus to say, “Babbitt may reach a new generation of readers with this satisfying work.”
Of course it’s the 2002 version that folks seem to remember. Say what you will about it, Ben Kingsley as the man in the yellow suit isn’t a bad casting idea in theory. Ditto Sissy Spacek as Mae and William Hurt as Angus.
That was back when they still used Enya in the movie trailers *shudder*. One can’t help but wonder whether if this movie came out today if it would sell better, just because of the whole teen romance trend we’re seeing thanks to Twilight.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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