Why Natalie Babbitt is so Everlasting

Tuck Everlasting

Tuck Everlasting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seems like once I start writing about writers it’s hard to stop. Another of my favorites is Natalie Babbitt, author of Tuck Everlasting and lots more. I discovered her only as an adult, which is actually when I started reading a lot of YA fiction, and the rhythmic, beautiful opening of that book just stopped me: “The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year . . .” The lyricism of her prologue is so beautiful I’ve gone back to it over the years, just to hear it again. Then, in her first chapter, the road becomes a character, bringing you into the town and the story. What a stroke of genius! I would have been sold on that novel alone, but I soon read The Devil’s Storybook and The Search for Delicious, both full of her wry sense of humor and lovable characters (even the Devil kind of grows on you!).

Then there’s Pheobe’s Revolt, a picture book about a girl in 1904 who rebels against bows and frills. Entirely in rhyme, the book is one of those gems that surprise you with sheer cleverness:

“In nineteen-four, at any rate,
Phoebe Euphemia Brown was eight.
Her trouble all began in June,
While getting dressed one afternoon.
For Phoebe, who was mostly good
And often did the things she should
Stepped forward in her underwear
With mingled passion and despair
And loudly said she hated bows
And roses on her slipper toes.”

Copyright © 1989 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Historical fiction for elementary school, all in rhyme and with pictures. Now I ask you, how many writers can do that?

The Joys of Rereading

Cover of "To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Ann...

Cover via Amazon

There are certain writers whose voices never stop echoing in my ears. At the age of 12, I read To Kill A Mockingbird in the seventh grade, and realized, suddenly, that people could make magic with words. I’d always loved stories – my father used to sit in the doorway to the bedroom I shared with my sister when I was little, and read by the light in the hall. Sometimes he’d read mysteries – Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys – doling out chapters like candy — (just one more, please!) until either he or we fell asleep still wanting more. On the best of those nights, though, he would tell his own stories. And those stories planted the seeds of a writer in me.

But it was not until I read Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird that I learned the magnetic power of voice. That novel gripped me from start to finish, and I remember thinking, right when I finished it: Wow. I want to do that.

I never stopped thinking that. And that’s because something about Miss Lee’s voice just kept echoing and echoing. I loved it so much I returned to it again and again over the years. I think I stopped counting when I’d read the book about 13 times. I read it first just to be back in that place, with those people. She’d made them all that good. But after a while, when I’d begun to study writing in earnest, I read it to understand how she put things together, how she achieved what she did. I’ve never gotten tired of it yet.

I wish she’d written another book. But that one has kept me for a lifetime.

Foucault’s Pendulum

The other day I mentioned our trip to the National Mall for the Book Festival. That mall downtown is one of my favorite places. Having grown up just outside the nation’s capital, I spent many a Sunday on what’s often called America’s front lawn, enjoying the free museums. My parents had moved to the area when I was a toddler, and my father had never gotten over his delight at all the things there were to see and do in D.C. He used to pile my brothers and sisters and me into the car early Sunday morning, letting my mother sleep in, and take us sightseeing. I still remember standing on the second floor balcony at the Museum of American History, and watching the giant Foucault’s pendulum they used to have there, swinging back and forth, knocking over pegs they had laid in a great circle on the floor. The trick of it was that the pendulum was always moving in a straight line; it was the world that was turning, inching slowly forward until another peg was in the way, ready to be toppled. I could never get enough of that pendulum. Besides the hypnotic quality of its rhythmic back and forth, the idea that I was standing on a turning world – and could see it – just amazed me. A few years ago, the Smithsonian Institute renovated the museum, trying to focus it more on the American experience, and the pendulum went into storage. When I asked a guard there why, he said: “It was French. This is the American history museum.” Now, it’s still a great museum – in some ways better than ever, with some fabulous living history performances that liven the place up. But I miss that pendulum. Even if it was French.

National Book Festival

A couple of weeks ago, my two youngest daughters – hereafter known as Beautiful Dreamer and Castle Builder – joined me on a trip to the National Book Festival, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. What a fantastic gathering! Of course, not much can be wrong with a bright autumn day and people in love with books milling around. One of my favorite talks was in celebration of A Wrinkle in Time on the 50th anniversary of its publication. I still remember how much I loved that book when I first read it. Hope Larson, one of the panelists giving the talk, said she thought the book was so timeless because of Meg, the main character, who is ordinary and flawed, and yet able to save the world. I’d never heard it put just that way, but I thought she was exactly right. Meg is what sticks in my mind after all these years – and how her ordinary, rotten, soggy-feeling day at school turns into an adventure that spans the universe.

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