Babbitt, Natalie 1932–

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Babbitt, Natalie 1932–

PERSONAL:

Born July 28, 1932, in Dayton, OH; daughter of Ralph Zane (a business administrator) and Genevieve Moore; married Samuel Fisher Babbitt (a university administrator), June 26, 1954; children: Christopher Converse, Thomas Collier II, Lucy Cullyford. Education: Smith College, B.A., 1954. Politics: Democrat. Hobbies and other interests: Needlework, piano, word puzzles.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Providence, RI.

CAREER:

Author and illustrator.

MEMBER:

Authors Guild, Author's League of America, PEN (American Center).

AWARDS, HONORS:

Best Book for children ages nine to twelve, New York Times, 1969, for The Search for Delicious; Notable Book, American Library Association (ALA), 1970, Newbery Honor Book designation, ALA, 1971, and Honor Book citation, Horn Book, all for Kneeknock Rise; Children's Spring Book Festival Honor Book designation, Book World, 1971, Children's Book Showcase, Children's Book Council, Best Books designation, School Library Journal, and Edgar Allan Poe award runner-up, Mystery Writers of America, all 1972, all for Goody Hall; Notable Book designation, ALA, Best Books designation, School Library Journal, Honor Book citation, Horn Book, and National Book Award finalist, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, all 1975, and Parents' Choice Award (story book category), Parent's Choice Foundation, 1987, all for The Devil's Storybook; Best Books designation, New York Times, 1975, Notable Book designation, ALA, Honor Book citation, Horn Book, Christopher Award for juvenile fiction, the Christophers, all 1976, Children's Choice selection, International Reading Association, U.S. Honor Book citation, Congress of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) citation, and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, all 1978, all for Tuck Everlasting; Notable Book designation, ALA, 1977, for The Eyes of the Amaryllis; Recognition of Merit Award, George C. Stone Center for Children's Books, 1979, for body of work; Hans Christian Andersen Medal nomination, IBBY, 1981; Best Books designation, New York Times, 1982, for Herbert Rowbarge; Children's Literature Festival Award, Keene State College, 1993, for body of work; Blue Ribbon Book, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, 1998, Notable Book designation, ALA, 1999, and Audie Award, 2001, all for Ouch! A Tale from Grimm.

WRITINGS:

SELF-ILLUSTRATED VERSE

Dick Foote and the Shark, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1967.

Phoebe's Revolt, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968.

SELF-ILLUSTRATED FICTION

The Search for Delicious, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1969.

Kneeknock Rise, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1970.

The Something, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1970.

Goody Hall, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1971.

The Devil's Storybook, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1974.

Tuck Everlasting, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1975.

The Eyes of the Amaryllis, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1977.

Herbert Rowbarge, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1982.

The Devil's Other Storybook, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1987.

Nellie: A Cat on Her Own, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1989.

Bub; or, The Very Best Thing, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994.

Elsie Times Eight, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2001.

Jack Plank Tells Tales, Michael di Capua Books (New York, NY), 2007.

ILLUSTRATOR:

Samuel Fisher Babbitt, The Forty-ninth Magician, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1966.

Valerie Worth, Small Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1972.

Valerie Worth, More Small Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1976.

Valerie Worth, Still More Small Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1978.

Valerie Worth, Curlicues: The Fortunes of Two Pug Dogs, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1980, published as Imp and Biscuit: The Fortunes of Two Pugs, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1981.

Valerie Worth, Small Poems Again, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1986.

Valerie Worth, Other Small Poems Again, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1986.

Valerie Worth, All the Small Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1987.

Valerie Worth, All the Small Poems and Fourteen More, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.

Valerie Worth, Peacock and Other Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.

OTHER

(Reteller) Ouch! A Tale from Grimm, illustrated by Fred Marcellino, HarperCollins/Michael di Capua Books (New York, NY), 1998.

Contributor to Redbook, Publishers Weekly, Horn Book, New York Times Book Review, Cricket, School Library Journal, USA Today, and Washington Post Book World.

Babbitt's books have been translated into several languages.

ADAPTATIONS:

Kneeknock Rise was made into a filmstrip, Miller-Brody Productions, 1975, and recorded on audiocassette, American School Publishers, 1987; The Search for Delicious was recorded on audiocassette, Listening Library; Ouch! was recorded on audiocassette with teacher's guide, Live Oak Media, 2000. Tuck Everlasting was recorded on audiocassette, Audio Bookshelf, 1995, and adapted as a motion picture, Walt Disney Productions, 2002.

SIDELIGHTS:

Primarily known as a children's book writer, Natalie Babbitt is also appreciated as a gifted storyteller by adult readers. In entertaining narratives, her characters confront many basic human necessities, including the need for love and acceptance, the need to grow and make independent decisions, the need to overcome fears, and the need to believe in something unexplainable. Her originality, sense of humor, and challenging themes have earned her acclaim as a children's author. Babbitt's 1975 work, Tuck Everlasting, garnered numerous awards and honors when it was first published, and in the years since it has been deemed a masterpiece of children's literature. "Babbitt has made a special place for herself in the world of children's literature," concluded a contributor to the St. James Guide to Children's Writers.

Babbitt's mother encouraged the author's early interest in art and reading. Genevieve Moore read children's books aloud to her two daughters, and the three decided that Natalie would become an artist and her sister a writer. Impressed with Spanish artist Luis de Vargas's airbrushed figures of glamorous women, which were popular during World War II, young Babbitt imitated them using colored pencils. Discouraged by the difference between Vargas's finished drawings and her own, she was then inspired by Sir John Tenniel's illustrations in Alice in Wonderland and decided to work with pen and ink, which became her specialty.

While taking a summer fashion illustration course at the Cleveland School of Art, Babbitt realized that she enjoyed creative drawing more than sketching alligator handbags. Later, in art classes at Smith College, where she competed with other artists for the first time in her life, she saw that success as an illustrator required more than just creativity. In an essay for Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS), Babbitt explained: "It was an invaluable lesson, the best lesson I learned in four years of college: to wit, you have to work hard to do good work. I had always done what came easily, and what came easily had always been good enough. It was not good enough at Smith, and would never be good enough again."

While at Smith, she met Samuel Babbitt, whom she married in 1954. She kept busy working and raising a family of three children while her husband, an aspiring author, wrote a novel. The many solitary hours spent working on the novel did not suit him, however, and he went back to work as a college administrator. Babbitt's sister also produced a comic novel, for which Babbitt supplied illustrations, but the project was abandoned when an editor asked for a substantial rewriting. "I learned three valuable things from observing what happened to my mother, sister, and husband with their forays into the writer's world," she said in her autobiographical essay. "You have to give writing your full attention, you have to like the revision process, and you have to like to be alone. But it was years before I put any of it to good use." After reading Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Babbitt realized that while her life as a homemaker had been successful, it was time to try to develop her talents. Discussions with other women making similar discoveries led to her decision to pursue a career as an illustrator.

In 1966, The Forty-ninth Magician, illustrated by Babbitt and written by her husband, was published with the help of Michael di Capua at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Di Capua encouraged Babbitt to continue producing children's books even after her husband became too busy to write the stories. She began by writing Dick Foote and the Shark and Phoebe's Revolt, two picture books in which the stories are told in rhyming poetry.

Another original work, Goody Hall, is a Gothic mystery set in the English countryside. A large Victorian house decorated with ornate woodcarvings belongs to Midas Goody, whose disappearance spurs a young tutor to investigate. His encounters with an empty tomb, a gypsy, a rich youngster and his unusual mother, and other surprises lead to a happy ending when the Goody family is reunited. Although Babbitt's plot, like the old house with its hints of secret passageways and hidden closets, can frighten and bewilder, "in the end we feel the way the Goodys did about their house," Jean Fritz observed in the New York Times Book Review.

In The Devil's Storybook, Babbitt's title character is a trickster who is fooled as often as he tries to fool others. For example, he gives the power of speech to a goat who then annoys him with his constant complaining. In another story, the Devil sneaks into the bedroom of a pretty lady who outwits him. Babbitt's devil is middle-aged and potbellied and often fails to attain his goal of causing trouble for others. "The stories are delightful in their narrative fluency," declared Paul Heins in Horn Book. Others noted Babbitt's humorous illustrations: "Neatly framed pen sketches of beefy peasants and roguish inmates of Hell add folktale flavor and provide further proof of this Devil's fallibility," noted Jane Abramson in a School Library Journal review of The Devil's Storybook.

Tuck Everlasting features a family who, upon discovering a secret spring that imparts immortality, finds out that living forever without ever growing or changing is not very pleasant. This also becomes clear to a ten-year-old girl who discovers the family by accident and decides to try to help them. Tuck's explanation of the role of death in the cycle of nature "is one of the most vivid and deeply felt passages in American children's literature," Ms. reviewer Michele Landsberg declared. In Children's Books and Their Creators, Eden Edwards remarked of Tuck Everlasting: "The writing is economical, straightforward, and unassuming, like the Tucks, yet the result is a mysterious, subtle evocation of emotion for this family and their fate. Here, as in most of Babbitt's fiction, sophisticated ideas are presented with simplicity." Since its publication, Tuck Everlasting has become a classic of children's literature and has also been adapted for film. "I think, a century from now, that Tuck will still have something essential to say about the human condition," Tim Wynne-Jones remarked in Horn Book. "And how well it does so, with flawless style, in words that are exact and simple and soothing and right."

Babbitt's The Eyes of the Amaryllis features a seafaring family haunted by a tragic accident. After her grandmother breaks an ankle, eleven-year-old Jenny Reades must go to the ocean shore and help the elderly woman recover. Forbidden from visiting the sea by her father, Jenny looks forward to finally seeing the strong waves of the Atlantic. During the summer, the young protagonist begins to understand her grandmother's habit of searching the beach after every high tide, looking for remnants of the missing ship her long-lost husband captained over thirty years before. Strangely, a piece of the lost ship surfaces during Jenny's stay, beginning a life-threatening series of events. Praising the use of the sea both "as an impelling atmospheric force and as an effective protagonist," Booklist reviewer Barbara Elleman claimed that in The Eyes of the Amaryllis, "Babbitt wastes nary a word, deftly carving characters and events into a gripping tale." Writing in Horn Book, Mary M. Burns credited the book's success to "a well-wrought narrative in which a complex philosophic theme is developed through the balanced, subtle use of symbol and imagery."

Completed after a twenty-five-year break from novel writing, Babbitt's Jack Plank Tells Tales is an "enchanting story about telling stories," observed Paula Rohrlick in Kliatt. Jack Plank Tells Tales centers on a pirate who has lost his taste for plundering and is let go by his crew. Arriving in the Caribbean town of Saltwash, Jack Plank takes a room at Mrs. Delfresno's boardinghouse, where he is assisted in his job search by the landlady's young daughter, Nina. Unfortunately, Jack finds a reason to turn down every prospective employer, recalling experiences from his seafaring days that have soured him on farming, fishing, and other respectable forms of work. "These stories spin out, one each for eight days, at the end of which, the resourceful Nina comes up with the perfect job," noted School Library Journal critic Susan Hepler. According to Long, audiences will be charmed "by the author's sweetly ironical voice—colloquial, studded with deliciously unexpected words, and exquisitely honed."

Not limiting her efforts to novels for children, Babbitt entered the genre of picture books with Nellie: A Cat on Her Own, which she both wrote and illustrated. Created by an old woman from wood, string, and broom straws, Nellie is a marionette who thinks she cannot dance without the old woman's help. After the woman dies, Big Tom the cat encourages Nellie to dance on her own. At a midnight gathering of other cats, Nellie finds inspiration in the moonlight and learns to find joy in dancing just to please herself. Describing the picture book as a "small tale, charmingly rendered," Horn Book contributor Ann A. Flowers insisted that "this tale of independence achieved … is enhanced by delicate watercolors of the dubious Nellie and competent Big Tom." Praising Babbitt's theme, Ilene Cooper wrote in a Booklist review that in Nellie, "Babbitt subtly yet surely weaves a strong message about self-reliance into this charming fantasy."

In Bub; or, The Very Best Thing, a picture book fantasy, a young king and queen argue about what is the very best thing for their young son. Pursuing an authoritative answer, the king and his advisors look into books, while the queen, accompanied by the child, his toy dragon, and a dog dressed as a court jester, traverse the castle, polling everyone they encounter. Finally, the cook's daughter suggests that they ask the child himself, and he replies "bub," which the girl interprets for adults as "love." "It's a fine book for new parents, whose point of view it reflects entirely," remarked Betsy Hearne in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. In a Horn Book review, Hanna B. Zeiger declared of Bub that the author's "elegant writing style and the totally engaging characterizations in her illustrations combine to create a memorable picture book."

In Elsie Times Eight, Babbitt portrays what happens when a hard-of-hearing fairy godmother goes into action. She clones eight Elsies, and havoc ensues as the girl's parents try to cope. Eventually they locate the godmother, who puts things to rights. Among the book's enthusiasts was Joanna Rudge Long, who in Horn Book praised Babbitt's "lively compositions" and "cheerful narration, with its funny, unexpected turns," while a Kirkus Reviews contributor predicted that the book's premise is "sure to appeal to youngsters." Grace Oliff, writing in School Library Journal, likened Babbitt's pastel watercolors to those of classic Mother Goose tales and praised her "inimitable prose style." In Booklist, Ilene Cooper complimented Babbitt for her energetic and "edgy" telling and her ink-and-watercolor illustrations, which contain some "delightful moments."

After her husband stopped writing, Babbitt gave up illustrating for others, with the exception of the poetry books of Valerie Worth. Published as Small Poems, More Small Poems, and so forth, the collection reached nine volumes in 2002 with Peacock and Other Poems, a volume published after Worth's death. "The earlier works have been widely praised, for good reason," remarked Nancy Vasilakis in a Horn Book review of All the Small Poems and Fourteen More, adding that the fourteen new poems are "every bit as worthy as their predecessors." Babbitt's illustrations for this book were praised by Hazel Rochman in Booklist, who wrote that the artist's "small ink drawings embody the realistic and make us imagine much more." Reviewing Peacock and Other Poems, Horn Book contributor Mary M. Burns described Worth and Babbitt as "kindred spirits," and School Library Journal critic Nicole Lindsay applauded the illustrator's contributions, stating that her pictures "face each poem with quiet detail that draws readers into the words."

Babbitt has also written texts that have been illustrated by other artists, including her retelling, Ouch! A Tale from Grimm, featuring artwork by Fred Marcellino. In this story, a young man named Marco, born with a crown-shaped birthmark, grows up to marry a princess. Unfortunately, her evil father insists that Marco descend to Hell and steal three golden hairs from the devil's head, a deed the young man convinces the devil's grandmother to commit. Marco, meanwhile, returns to the kingdom to exact revenge on his evil father-in-law. "Babbitt rewrites the classic story in a casual voice infused with wry wit," wrote a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, concluding that "readers will likely lap up [her] intelligent retelling, mixed with a dash of sly humor."

Babbitt once commented, "I write for children because I am interested in fantasy and the possibilities for experience of all kinds before the time of compromise. I believe that children are far more perceptive and wise than American books give them credit for being." In an interview on the Scholastic Web site, she described her writing style as "wordy," adding: "I like words, and words are the tools that writers use, just like paint is the tool that artists use. I think words are fun, and I have a lot of fun using them." Asked if her background as an illustrator has influenced her prose, Babbitt replied, "I think my writing style and my pictures come out of the same place—they're mutually informed by what I see in my head. When you're writing a story, it's like watching a movie—you describe what you're seeing in your head. And illustrating is the same thing—you draw what you see in your head."

Looking back on her published work, Babbitt recognizes that many of her own childhood memories are woven into her stories. These childhood experiences remain meaningful into adulthood, according to Anita Moss in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and it is this quality that makes her books enjoyable for readers of all ages. "While much of children's literature presents moral dilemmas that are easily resolved," Moss wrote, "many of Babbitt's best works indicate that neat solutions to the baffling paradoxes of the human situation are unattainable. Her books in fact are notable for introducing complex issues and for exploring these issues from multiple points of view. Yet for all the seriousness of the themes she explores, Babbitt's treatment is apt to be humorous and deftly handled."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Babbitt, Natalie, essay in Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 5, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.

Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 53, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 52: American Writers for Children since 1960: Poets, Writers, Illustrators, and Non-fiction Authors, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.

St James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, November 15, 1977, Barbara Elleman, review of The Eyes of the Amaryllis, p. 546; October 15, 1989, Ilene Cooper, review of Nellie: A Cat on Her Own, pp. 447-448; January 15, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of All the Small Poems and Fourteen More, p. 933; November 15, 1998, review of Ouch! A Tale from Grimm, p. 582; March 15, 1999, review of Ouch!, p. 1302; November 15, 2001, Ilene Cooper, review of Elsie Times Eight, pp. 579-580; August, 2002, Carolyn Phelan, review of Peacock and Other Poems, p. 1963; April 1, 2007, Carolyn Phelan review of Jack Plank Tells Tales, p. 48.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1994, Betsy Hearne, review of Bub; or, The Very Best Thing, pp. 312-313; November 15, 1998, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Ouch!, p. 582; September 15, 1999, Elaine Hanson, review of Bub, p. 275; December, 2001, review of Elsie Times Eight, p. 129.

Horn Book, October, 1974, Paul Heins, review of The Devil's Storybook, p. 134; February, 1978, Mary M. Burns, review of The Eyes of the Amaryllis, pp. 42-43; May, 1988, Selma G. Lanes, "A Second Look: The Devil's Storybook," pp. 329-331; September, 1988, Natalie Babbitt, "Metamorphosis," pp. 582-589; March, 1989, Anita Silvey, "A Rare Entity," pp. 133-134; January-February, 1990, Ann A. Flowers, review of Nellie, p. 48; May-June, 1994, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of Bub, p. 305; March-April, 1995, Nancy Vasilakis, review of All the Small Poems and Fourteen More, p. 212; January, 1999, review of Ouch!, p. 73; March, 2000, Betsy Hearne, "Circling Tuck: An Interview with Natalie Babbitt," p. 153; July, 2000, review of Tuck Everlasting, p. 425; November, 2000, Tim Wynne-Jones, review of Tuck Everlasting, p. 720; January-February, 2002, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Elsie Times Eight, p. 66; July-August, 2002, Mary M. Burns, review of Peacock and Other Poems, p. 481; July-August, 2007, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Jack Plank Tells Tales, p. 389.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1994, review of Bub, p. 137; November 1, 1998, review of Ouch!, p. 1596; August 15, 2001, review of Elsie Times Eight, p. 1206; March 1, 2002, review of Peacock and Other Poems, p. 349; April 15, 2007, review of Jack Plank Tells Tales.

Kliatt, May, 2007, Paula Rohrlick, review of Jack Plank Tells Tales, p. 6.

Library Journal, October, 1974, Jane Abramson, review of The Devil's Storybook, p. 102; November 1, 2001, review of Tuck Everlasting, p. 160.

Ms., May 11, 1990, Michele Landsberg, review of Tuck Everlasting, p. 74.

New York Times Book Review, November 16, 1975, p. 32; November 1, 1987, Laurel Graeber, review of The Devil's Other Story Book, p. 36; June 19, 1994, review of Bub, p. 28; March 14, 1999, review of Ouch!, p. 31; January 20, 2002, review of Elsie Times Eight, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly, April 19, 1993, Steve Sherman, "Babbitt Has Strong Words for ‘Star System,’" p. 24; February 21, 1994, Amy Meeker, "Natalie Babbitt: The Gifted Writer of Children's Books Has Returned to Her First Love—Illustrating Them," pp. 229-230; November 2, 1998, review of Ouch!, p. 80; October 1, 2001, review of Elsie Times Eight, p. 60; February 11, 2002, review of Peacock and Other Poems, p. 184; April 9, 2007, review of Jack Plank Tells Tales, p. 54; April 16, 2007, Sue Corbett, "Natalie Everlasting: Newbery Honor Author Natalie Babbitt Writes Her First Novel in 25 Years," p. 19.

School Library Journal, October, 1974, Jane Abramson, review of The Devil's Storybook, p. 102; May, 2000, "A Timeless Classic," p. 17; November, 2001, Grace Oliff, review of Elsie Times Eight, p. 110; May, 2002, Nicole Lindsay, review of Peacock and Other Poems, p. 145; May, 2007, Susan Hepler, review of Jack Plank Tells Tales, p. 84.

Washington Post Book World, April 3, 1994, Michael Dirda, review of Bub, p. 10; November 1, 1998, review of Ouch!, p. 8; December 9, 2001, review of Elsie Times Eight, p. 8.

ONLINE

Scholastic Web site,http://www2.scholastic.com/ (September 20, 2008), interview with Babbitt.

OTHER

"A Visit with Natalie Babbitt," Tuck Everlasting, DVD special feature, Walt Disney Home Video, 2003.

About this article

Babbitt, Natalie 1932–

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