Natalie Babbitt, the author of classic children’s books including Newbery Medal winner Kneeknock Rise, died Monday at 84 years old. She is best known for her novel Tuck Everlasting, which tells the story of young Winnie, an 11-year-old girl who meets a 17-year-old Jesse Tuck when he stops her from drinking out of a spring near her rural home. Soon, she meets the rest of the Tucks and learns that the spring is magical: Jesse and his family will live forever at the ages at which they drank from the spring. At first this seems like a dream come true, but Winnie eventually begins to see that, for the Tucks, it has had truly dark consequences.
Since the book’s 1975 publication, it has sold over 3.5 million copies and been adapted twice for the big screen. Early this year, a musical of the story had a short run on Broadway. Babbitt’s legacy assuredly will live on, as some news coverage has taken care to point out; a poignant observation, given that the danger of immortality forms the central question of Tuck Everlasting.
Because we read children’s books at a formative age, when our brains are soaking up stories like porous little sponges and we’re prone to obsessive re-readings of favorites, great children’s authors naturally inspire lifelong devotion. Their work has the potential to mold the adult lives of millions. When we think back to the books we read as kids, we usually remember at least a few big takeaways ― from Harry Potter, the value of bravery and friendship; from A Little Princess, that money doesn’t buy class; from Phantom Tollbooth, that learning is fun.
From Tuck Everlasting, we learned that every living creature dies, and that although it’s natural to resist this, death is a meaningful part of life.
This is not a lesson kids love to hear, as any parent who’s struggled to explain what happened to Ginger the hamster probably can attest. When Jesse gives spunky Winnie, who’s already itching to leave her poky town and family behind, a bottle of spring water to drink when she’s 17 so they can get married and be immortal together, the romantic denouement is clear. And then it doesn’t happen. Winnie pours out the water. She ends up marrying a mortal man, having a family, growing old, and dying. The part of me that would have loved Twilight had the series existed when I was 10 years old, raged at Babbitt. How could death be better than being physically 17 and in love with a charming moptop forever?
Babbitt truly excelled at reframing the necessities of human existence for children’s developing minds. In another of my early favorites, The Search for Delicious, she writes of a fantasy kingdom where the prime minister has been compiling a dictionary. Each entry defines the term with an example (”Bulky is a big bag of boxes”), but when he reaches “delicious,” pandemonium breaks out at court. The king, the queen, and all the courtiers disagree about what represents deliciousness. Fried fish? Christmas pudding? An apple? A boy is sent to journey across the kingdom, tallying votes for the most delicious taste of all. The countrymen all disagree at first, until the land’s rivers dry up, threatening the whole nation’s survival, and everyone comes to a simple and profound agreement: “Delicious is a drink of cool water when you’re very, very thirsty.”
Most middle-class Americans wouldn’t say water is the most delicious thing in the world, but in a whimsical and adventurous story, Babbitt transforms it into a drink as alluring as any sugary soda.
Death, of course, is a harder sell. I remember struggling with Tuck Everlasting, and young readers are often angered or deeply disappointed by the tragic ending (see: most of these Goodreads users). The book lodges in the minds of young readers, and continues to work on us, because it’s such an unsettling and stark choice ― and also because Babbitt gives us all the tools we need to understand, when we’re ready, why Winnie chooses a mortal life. Despite adolescent conflicts with her family, choosing immortality would mean leaving them behind permanently ― an enormous and final choice. Aside from the Tucks, everyone she loved would live and die in the blink of an eye, while her life went on forever.
She would be out of sync with the cycle of humanity, and from her time with the Tucks, Winnie has seen how damaging this actually is. Jesse’s brother lost his family, as his wife was too disturbed by his increasingly preternatural youthfulness over the years to stay with him. Angus, the boys’ father, had tried to kill himself, violently, and failed. Once immortal, there’s no dying ― doesn’t that make you wonder how restful the idea of being done with living actually might be?
When I first finished Tuck Everlasting, I definitely groaned in exasperation. Always choose immortality with the hot dude! By the time I was an older teenager and Twilight swaggered into bookstores, I was groaning with a different sort of exasperation. Never choose immortality, especially not because you’re young and horny! Babbitt, and Tuck Everlasting, had slowly but surely poisoned eternal life for me. All I could think was that every human Twilight’s heroine Bella loved would die and leave her more alone; that her life would wind on well past the point of freshness and purpose. By showing me everything eternal life could be, and a young woman choosing to forsake it, Babbitt slyly convinced me to accept death myself ― even if it didn’t happen immediately.
This wasn’t an accident. She wrote Tuck Everlasting, she told Publishers Weekly in 2015, because her young daughter was fearful of death. “I wanted to be sure Lucy would not grow up scared,” she said.
Of course, I can only attest to how well this worked for me. Death is a frightening thing, of course, especially violent or untimely death. But since childhood I’ve looked at a peaceful death after a well-lived life as the appropriate final step. How did children learn about the existence of death before Tuck Everlasting? Well, they’ll never have to go back to that; it’s here to stay. Thanks, Natalie Babbitt.