Natalie Babbitt, the 84-year-old author of the popular children's novel "Tuck Everlasting," died Monday at her home in Hamden, Connecticut.
The novel left a big mark on young readers. It tells the story of a magical spring that grants eternal life to anyone who drinks from it – and a girl who has to decide whether to live forever or accept her eventual death. Babbitt told NPR’s Melissa Block last year that she decided to write "Tuck Everlasting" in 1975 after she realized her 4-year-old daughter was terrified of death.
“It seemed to me that I could write a story about how it's something that everybody has to do, and it's not a bad thing.”
In an excerpt Babbitt read for NPR, the heroine learns that death is just one part of what the book calls the great wheel of life.
“She raged against it, helpless and insulted, and blurted at last, ‘I don't want to die.’
‘No,’ said Tuck calmly. Not now. Your time is not now. But dying's part of the wheel, right there next to being born.’”
That idea of the great wheel of life came up again when a "Tuck Everlasting" musical played on Broadway earlier this year.
Lyricist Nathan Tysen got to know Babbitt as he adapted the musical. He says despite all the death talk, she was warm and charming.
“She had so much heart, and she cared so much about her young readers. She was trying to give these kids an opportunity to deal and talk about their own mortality.”
Tysen first discovered "Tuck Everlasting" in middle school, and he says it helped him realize how powerful stories could be.
“I was one of those kids in fifth grade that was very scared of my own death, and this book helped me deal with it.”
Writers and editors of young adult books sent out condolences on Twitter Tuesday – among them Judy Blume. And Gregory Maguire, the author of "Wicked," is another writer who says Natalie Babbitt inspired him.
“There’s a generosity of spirit that comes through her books but it also came through her person. She had a quality of almost floating into a room. She had a beneficent and magnanimous smile.”
Last year, Maguire wrote the foreword for the 40th anniversary edition of "Tuck Everlasting." He says few other authors could tell a story with such powerful simplicity, and the book’s only equal might be Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.
“And it takes some of the same starting points: a simple country landscape, a simple single bit of magic, or miracle, the spiderweb, the everlasting spring.”
And also tough moral choices about how to live life when it finally hits you that you’re going to die someday. That’s something that’s hard for adults to grapple with, let alone kids. But Maguire says Babbitt wasn’t afraid to pose those questions to young readers.
“I’m reminded of the Mary Oliver poem that ends, ‘What will you do with your one wild and precious life?’ And that’s really the question that 'Tuck Everlasting' asks.”
Finally, Maguire says, it asks readers to accept that all things must pass away eventually.
“In order, as Natalie Babbitt put it, to make room on the planet for the life to come.”
Natalie Babbitt leaves behind a husband, three children and three grandchildren, along with dozens of books for children and young adults.
"This report comes from the New England News Collaborative. Eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."