Born 28 July 1932, Dayton, Ohio
Daughter of Ralph Z. and Genevieve Converse Moore; married Samuel F. Babbitt, 1954; children: Christopher, Thomas, Lucy
Despite its intimacy, all of Natalie Babbitt's work for young readers has a dramatic scope and is celebratory in nature. Her verbal pageantry, often accompanied by prologues and epilogues, imparts a sense of theatricality. The roots of theater go back to her earlier history. In high school, Babbitt coauthored a musical comedy; at Smith College, she began her studies as a theater major, although she soon changed her major to art, claiming she was a "wooden actress."
That Babbitt should venture into drawing as well as writing is consistent with her life history. Her mother, an amateur artist, encouraged Babbitt's early painting efforts. Babbitt began her career illustrating books written by her husband, Sam. Eventually, he became too busy with his job as a president of Kirkland College to work with her, and she moved into illustrating her own works and then to writing longer prose. Even when her books provide no visuals, her imagistic language creates the landscape and brings substance and believability to the characters. Her settings have the majesty and sweep of the air, the sea, the forest, the woods; her characters have the dignity of individuals and the power of archetypes. The ritualistic quality inherent in place and person pervades her work; a mythic lyricism serves both to quiet and excite the reader.
With her mastery of tone and mood, Babbitt's stories resonate beyond their particulars to embrace the universal and to speak of broad truths. In her well-loved Tuck Everlasting (1975) the highly credible eleven-year-old Winnie faces ultimate questions about the meaning of life and death, and the novel speaks poignantly about the place of death in the life cycle. The book's gentle and poetic wisdom places it among the classics in children's literature.
Despite the importance of her themes, Babbitt infuses her work with genuine levity, and her wry, humorous perspective attracts younger readers. Her early The Search for Delicious (1969), Kneeknock Rise (1970), a Newbery honor book, and The Something (1970) are the stages for her homey tales with levels of meaning beyond their apparent lightheartedness. Twice, in The Devil's Storybook (1976) and The Devil's Other Storybook (1987), Babbitt claims the devil as her protagonist. He is a comic earthbound fellow victimized by his mischievous pranks as he plots against others. Babbitt's restrained satire renders him an endearing character.
Babbitt enjoys providing her readers with characters outside the mainstream of children's literature. In Eyes of the Amaryllis (1977) Jenny's Gran, an irascible woman who has not made loving her easy, must grow in ways more expected of her young granddaughter. Reality and illusion crash up against one another along the stormy shoreline of the novel to challenge the readers' belief in things they cannot explain. Her quirky Herbert Rowbarge (1982), Babbitt's personal favorite, does not have an appealing character with whom young readers can identify. Even as a child, Herbert is distant and inaccessible. The novel's philosophic truth about sense and self, and loss of self, remains more ambiguous, less tangible, though no less wise than her other writings. Although Babbitt's canon has wide appeal to adults as well as children, the characters and theme of Herbert Rowbarge presume adult experience. Publishers Weekly proclaimed it "her crowning achievement."
In 1989 Babbitt returned to her painterly antecedents and produced her first full-color picture book since The Something (1970), Nellie: A Cat on Her Own. She says she ran out of ideas for longer works around this time, and she went on to publish another picture book in 1994, Bub: Or the Very Best Thing. The story of a king and queen's search for the best thing for their child, Bub is set in medieval times, and Babbitt painstakingly hand-sewed costumes for her models in order to achieve the precision she wanted for her illustrations. The book took her four years to complete. After Bub, Babbitt became absorbed in smaller projects, such as composing acrostics for the children's magazine, Horn Book. She also wrote another picture book published in 1999, Ouch! This adaptation of a story from Grimms' fairytales was illustrated by Fred Marcellino.
The Forty-Ninth Magician (with S. Babbitt, 1966). Dick Foote and the Shark (1967). Phoebe's Revolt (1968). Goody Hall (1971). Curlicues (1980).
Illustrator for V. Worth titles: Small Poems (1972). More Small Poems (1976). Still More Small Poems (1978). Small Poems Again (1986). All the Small Poems and Fourteen More (1987).
Harrison, B. and G. Maguire, eds., Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children's Literature (1987). Haviland, V., ed., Children and Literature (1973). Silvey, A., ed., Children's Books and Their Creators (1995). Ward, M. E., et al., Authors of Books for Young People (1990).
CA (1975). CANR (1987). CLR (1976). DLB (1986). SATA (1987). TCCW (1989).
Horn Book (Nov./Dec. 1984, March/April 1986, Sept./Oct. 1988, Nov./Dec. 1989, Nov./Dec. 1990). NYTBR (14 Mar. 1999). PW (21 Feb. 1994).
—SUSAN P. BLOOM
UPDATED BY ANGELA WOODWARD