Esteemed author and artist Natalie Babbitt, whose 1975 novel Tuck Everlasting remains a lauded work of the modern children’s literature canon, died of lung cancer on October 31 in her home in Hamden, Ct. She was 84.
Babbitt was born Natalie Zane Moore in Dayton, Ohio on July 28, 1932. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, the family moved many times to various cities and towns in Ohio driven by her father’s work opportunities or misfortunes, affected by the Great Depression. In recalling her early years in an autobiographical essay for Something About the Author, Babbitt notes that her father’s great wit and her mother’s artistic talent were big influences on her and her older sister, Diane. Babbitt’s mother was discouraged from pursuing a master’s degree in art by a group of women at her church who thought such aspiration was not appropriate. “She was a woman of great intelligence and energy and talent, with nowhere to put it all,” Babbitt wrote. “So she turned the intense searchlight of her ambition onto my sister and me. We grew up with the idea firmly implanted that we could, should, and would have it all—a first-class education, a strong marriage, a family, and an active career.”
Babbitt’s mother made every effort to expose Natalie and her sister to music and literature—via the symphony, opera, library, and art museum—and Babbitt said that early on, her mother had decided that Diane would be a writer when she grew up, and that Natalie would be an artist. At age nine, after a brief fascination with creating pin-up art in the style of Luis de Vargas, Babbitt received an edition of Alice in Wonderland illustrated by John Tenniel. That book made her a convert, she said, and she quickly decided that, “I would become an illustrator of children’s books, and work, like Tenniel, only in pen and ink.”
Babbitt and her sister both graduated from the Laurel School, a private academy for girls near Cleveland, and in fall 1950 Babbitt entered Smith College in Northampton, Mass. During her sophomore year a friend set her up with Sam Babbitt, who had left Yale after his sophomore year to join the army, and served in Korea. They married in June 1954, just after Natalie’s graduation from Smith, and moved to New Haven, Ct. where Sam began a noted career as a college administrator. Son Christopher was born in 1956 followed by son Tom in 1958, and daughter Lucy, who arrived in 1960.
After stints in Nashville, and Washington, D.C., the Babbitts returned to New Haven where Natalie was inspired and empowered by her female friends, who were all embracing the feminist movement in various ways. Following a particularly spirited lunch, Babbitt recalled saying, “By God, I’m going to do what I’ve always wanted to do,” and in effect launched her children’s book career. Back at home she quickly came up with a title—The Forty-ninth Magician—and asked her husband Sam to write a story to go with it. She created pen-and-ink pictures for the project and it sold to Pantheon, acquired by a young editor named Michael di Capua, who published the book in 1966.
Di Capua would go on to be Babbitt’s only editor and one of her closest friends in a relationship spanning more than 50 years. It was urging from di Capua that convinced Babbitt to start writing her own prose. Her first full-fledged effort became The Search for Delicious, which was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1969. Next came Kneeknock Rise in 1970, which was named a 1971 Newbery Honor book. In the early 1970s, her novels flowed in quick succession—Goody Hall and The Devil’s Storybook among them. Babbitt’s family relocated again to upstate New York where they bought a piece of land and a small vacation home in the foothills of the Adirondacks. The bucolic spot “appears almost exactly as itself in my story Tuck Everlasting,” Babbitt noted in her autobiography. The novel features a fantastical woodland freshwater spring that grants eternal life. In an article about marking the book’s 40th anniversary last year, Babbitt told PW: “My youngest, Lucy, had a scary time wondering what it would be like to die,” in recalling her path to imagining the fantastical freshwater spring in the woods that grants eternal life. “I had long before that made up my mind about what was going to happen when I died. But I wrote Tuck to help Lucy understand what life is all about—that we all get born and we all have to die. It’s a subject I never thought I’d write about, but there it was. I wanted to be sure Lucy would not grow up scared.”
The subject matter—is living forever a good thing? —was somewhat controversial when the book was published in 1975, especially in schools, but strong word-of-mouth and support from educators and librarians helped it grow into an enduring favorite. Tuck Everlasting was adapted as a Disney feature film in 2002 (a project that Babbitt did not like); and made its debut as a Broadway musical earlier this year, with a book co-written by children’s author Tim Federle.
When Di Capua spoke with PW for Tuck’s recent anniversary, he offered this sentiment about his dear friend: “I can’t imagine my life without Natalie in it. What a blessing we found each other way back when.”
In addition to her novels, Babbitt wrote and illustrated several picture books, including Nellie: A Cat on Her Own (FSG, 1989) Bub; or, The Very Best Thing (HarperCollins, 1994), and Elsie Times Eight (Hyperion, 2001).
In a statement, Samuel F. Babbitt shared this reflection: “Natalie was a remarkable woman. While more than fulfilling her roles as wife and mother, she sharply observed her fellow humans, shaping stories that helped her and her readers grapple with both the trivial and fundamental trials of life. Words were precious things to her, and she chose them, shaped their facets, and set them on the page like a master jeweler.”