Joe, a 12-year-old boy living with his grandmother in small-town Ohio in the 1960s, must choose between following his dream of becoming an astronomer and living a pampered life as the adopted son of a local millionaire whose business he will someday run. That is the premise of The Moon Over High Street, the latest novel by Natalie Babbitt, whose previous books include Tuck Everlasting and Knee-Knock Rise. Bookshelf talked with the author, who also lived in Ohio as a child, about her new novel from Scholastic’s Michael di Capua Books.
What sparked the idea for The Moon Over High Street?
I’d been wanting to write about money for a long, long time. Growing up, I had a lot of experiences regarding that subject that were both good and bad. I had a wonderful mother who wanted my sister and me to have everything, even though money was a very prominent thing we didn’t have. But we had a very happy childhood—pretty much ideal, in fact. This is the only one of my books that has no fantasy at all in it. It is much closer to my own feelings about my life. Even though Joe has lost his parents, he has a happy childhood and a very good relationship with his grandmother.
Would you say this was an easy novel to write?
Well, it took me quite a while to write—I’m not a fast worker. I started work on it 10 years ago, and then decided it was quite terrible so I threw it out. But I kept the characters. They stayed in my head. Finally, when the novel began to take some reasonable shape, it became easy to work on.
So the characters came more easily to you than the story?
Yes, they did. I got to know them very well by the time I finally got started on the final story. I had a lot of fun with them. I know people who are quite a bit like some of the characters, and writing about them felt kind of cozy.
Joe has quite an endearing fascination with the moon, and wants to become a scientist to make sure that nothing bad happens to change it. What inspired that aspect of the plot?
I have always loved astronomy, and being an astronomer once lurked in the back of my mind. But I was never good at algebra. In fact I flunked it twice in high school. So it was a great deal of fun to write about the moon. I did consult a friend who is an astrophysicist, because I wanted to make sure that everything I wrote was accurate. I always fear that terrible possibility that a father or mother will be reading one of my books aloud and come across a terrible mistake, and throw the book across the room. It’s funny, I asked my friend how old he was when he realized he wanted to be an astronomer, and he said, “Maybe 12.” Joe’s age. And that put a nice lid on the story.
When Joe reluctantly goes to stay with his aunt while his grandmother recovers from surgery, he expresses frustration at having no control over his life, and always having to do what others want. Do you feel that is a common childhood frustration?
I do think it’s common. And it went on even in my own adult life. I have a wonderful husband and we have had a great life. But when he and I got married, it was before Betty Friedan—God bless her—wrote The Feminine Mystique. Women in my generation did what we had to do—have babies and stay at home. We didn’t talk about what else we might do, even though I’d decided in the fourth grade that I wanted to work in the children’s book business. Many of us were happily married with good families, but something was missing. Betty Friedan gave us a voice.
How was it that you started your children’s book career?
I began as an illustrator, mainly because I never thought about writing. My mother was an artist, and I was fairly good at art as a child. I was always the best drawer in class, except in second grade when an artistic genius passed through our school! One day, when my children were pretty much grown, I suddenly barged in on my husband, who was studying for his doctorate orals. I said, “The time is now. Go write me a story!” And he did. He wrote The Forty-Ninth Magician in two hours, and it was wonderful. So I did the illustrations, and my agent passed it around to several publishers. And it landed at Pantheon in the hands of Michael di Capua, then a mere boy of 28, who published it.
And he’s been your editor ever since that book was published in 1966?
Yes. It was amazing to find him. I needed someone who believed in me, and Michael did. I had never really thought about writing, but he gave me the courage to do it. And my husband encouraged me, too. Having written quite a lot now, I’m convinced it’s a fairly common skill, though most people aren’t really interested in writing. It’s a lonely work life. But we all use words all the time, and words are the only tool you need to write.
But not everyone knows how to put words together as well as you do.
Putting the words together is the fun thing for me. My father was very good with language and was very funny. Listening to him gave charm to the idea of playing with words.
Do you have a favorite book among those you’ve written or illustrated?
I would have to say it’s Herbert Rowbarge. It’s the only one I wrote for adults, and it’s the most personal book I’ve written. And I think it’s my best writing. It’s about an Ohio man who has a twin but doesn’t know it. Farrar, Straus published it and marketed it as a teenage novel. They didn’t really know what to do with it, which wasn’t their fault.
In an editor’s letter in the ARC of The Moon Over High Street, Michael di Capua writes that he thinks this is your finest novel since Tuck Everlasting. What do you think about that?
When I read that letter, I just loved it. Michael is my one judge and the one judge I care about. I never would have written a word without him. I don’t know whether it’s my best book since Tuck Everlasting, but if he thinks so, there must be some truth to it.
Do you have any more books in the works?
I have one more sort of good idea that I think might work. But I don’t know. This one took 10 years to finish and I also want to do other things. And I’m still kind of holding my breath about The Moon Over High Street. I want it to be well received, but there is no way to ever count on that.
Well you certainly have a great track record.
Oh, thank you. I have been very lucky. And I have to give Michael all the credit. Every writer needs someone like him, and there aren’t many. He’s quite unusual.
The Moon Over High Street by Natalie Babbitt. Scholastic/Michael di Capua, $15.95 Mar. ISBN 978-0-545-37636-5