What if you could live forever? It’s the essential theme of Natalie Babbitt’s beloved novel Tuck Everlasting and a question that readers of the 1975 book have been pondering for 40 years now. Macmillan has some special birthday plans for Tuck beginning with a 40th-anniversary edition pubbing January 20 under the Square Fish imprint and an “In Conversation with Natalie Babbitt” event at New York’s Symphony Space on January 25. A musical adaptation of Tuck is making its Broadway tryout debut in Atlanta this month as well, suggesting it’s a story that’s still showing plenty of life.
“My youngest, Lucy, had a scary time wondering what it would be like to die,” Babbitt recalls of 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.”
From that starting point, Babbitt notes that many elements in the book came from personal experience. “Everything in there comes from actually living it,” she says. That includes the idyllic setting, which Babbitt recreated from her vivid memories of time spent in a “little house on a pond” in upstate New York that the family used as a weekend/vacation home when the three Babbitt children were small. Soon after they sold the cabin, Babbitt says she got a phone call notifying her that lightning (which also played a role in the book) had struck the house and it had burned to the ground. “That’s when the story began to unwrap; that’s the way it worked,” she adds.
As far as editor Michael di Capua was concerned, the completed manuscript for Tuck that landed on his desk at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1974 was business as usual. The pair had been working together since Babbitt first entered the children’s book arena as an illustrator (her long-held dream) and di Capua published her debut picture book, The Forty-ninth Magician (Pantheon, 1966), which featured a text penned by her husband Samuel F. Babbitt, a writer and actor. When her husband became too busy to collaborate further, Babbitt turned to writing verse to accompany her illustrations. She and di Capua, who changed the course of her career by encouraging her to try her hand at prose, still have a professional partnership and friendship today – one that is now 50 years strong. “At that point in history I was so spoiled by what Natalie had been doing for the last several years [The Search for Delicious; Kneeknock Rise; Goody Hall] that the arrival of Tuck was the same old, same old: yet another brilliant performance from her,” says di Capua. “But the theme of Tuck – ‘would eternal life be a good thing?’ – was a much grander theme than those of her previous books, and she addressed it so imaginatively. It struck such a chord, with millions of people by now.”
He recalls a letter he received from Babbitt during their work on Tuck and dated October 2, 1974. The correspondence now resides in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library, “She typed it on her old Underwood and starting with her greeting ‘Dearest Boss’ to her handwritten signature, it’s a typically charming Natalie letter,” he says. “It encapsulates the character of our 50-year relationship.” (See the letter, below.)
Upon publication, the book became a word-of-mouth favorite, but took a while to cement its popularity and establish itself as the go-to choice for school reading lists that it has been in recent years. Early on, Tuck’s subject matter was considered taboo by some and met with resistance. “One father was so irate about Tuck being used in his children’s school that he socked the principal in the nose!” says Babbitt. Fast-forward 40 years and Babbitt observes that a majority of teachers these days embrace Tuck and enjoy and encourage the kind of discussions that come from reading it.
Babbitt believes that fifth grade is the ideal time for children to discover Tuck. “It’s the age that I think there is a turning point,” she says. “Kids are ready to be treated like a person and they like that a lot. I get annoyed by the idea that children are not worth talking to seriously until they’re 18.” Di Capua believes that Tuck has broad appeal beyond its primary demographic and cites his fondness for a blurb by author Anne Tyler, who has praised Tuck as one of the best books ever written “for any age.”
Macmillan is reaching out to a spectrum of Tuck fans with its marketing efforts, too. The 40th anniversary edition, released simultaneously in hardcover and paperback, features a new jacket, a foreword by author Gregory Maguire (Wicked), an interview with Babbitt, and excerpts from select other Babbitt titles including Kneeknock Rise and The Devil’s Storybook. On January 1 the company kicked off a 40 Years/40 Days Blog Tour that poses the question “What if you could live forever?” to a roster of bloggers. Readers are invited to take a stab at answering the question and are encouraged to share their responses on social media using the hashtag #Tuck40th.
On January 21, the musical Tuck Everlasting will make its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. The show is scheduled to run through February 22. “Tuck is being made into a musical now,” says Babbitt. She was not fond of the Hollywood treatment the story received in the 2002 Disney film adaptation, but is eager to see a new incarnation for the stage. “In the movie, they tried to make things simple, and that takes all the interesting things out of it. With the musical we’ve been very lucky so far. The director, [Tony Award-winner] Casey Nicholaw [The Book of Mormon; The Drowsy Chaperone; Spamalot] is wonderful.” Babbitt and her family will be making a trip to see the production. “They’ve added stuff to it, so we’ll see. I have my fingers crossed,” she says.
During the January 25 event at Symphony Space, Babbitt will share her insights on the book and anniversary with author Maguire. Babbitt’s husband, Sam, and actress Alexis Bledel, who played Winnie in the Disney film, will perform excerpts from Tuck.
Rounding off the January push, a promotional anniversary poster with an updated teacher’s guide will be one of the giveaways distributed at ALA Midwinter and then at major school and library conferences throughout the year.
When she wraps up her batch of celebrations, Babbitt will get back to work on what she says “is certainly going to be the final thing, and it’s not for children.” She describes it as a book that captures “a lot of funny things about this age,” noting that she is 82. “I had always wanted only to be an illustrator,” she adds. “Writing is very, very hard. You have to do something you really care about, not just try to please kids.” But lest fans despair too much, di Capua relates that Babbitt has approached other projects she called “final” and they turned out not be.
Of Tuck’s 40-year lifespan, Babbitt says, “I’m astonished by it, but I like the thought that it’s lasted this long. I’m dazzled by the teachers who know how to use it as an answer to a question we have never had the courage to ask.” And the timing of this particular book birthday has spurred author and editor to reminisce on the anniversary of their first joining forces. Babbitt says, “Michael is amazing. He’s very firm and very forthright, and the only editor I’ve ever worked with. I’ve followed him everywhere.” And di Capua adds, “I can’t imagine my life without Natalie in it. What a blessing we found each other way back when.”