Four years ago at Halloween, my dad died unexpectedly, so for me, my once-favorite holiday lost some of its charm. This year, feeling sad but trying to get some work done, I rummaged through some of my favorite children’s books looking for inspiration.
Randomly, I picked up “Tuck Everlasting,” by Natalie Babbitt, a book my kids and I had loved well, and skimmed the familiar prologue. It’s a gem. Compact, with just 300 simple words, it’s like a well-cut opal: smooth, seamless and unblemished. Its bright, burnished beauty catches your mind’s eye and draws you from the shiny surface of now into the iridescent depths of space and time. It is a small, subtle jewel carefully set in a ring of true power.
I couldn’t help myself; work forgotten, I reread the book — a story of a sheltered girl who suddenly is confronted with life’s greatest questions; a story about choices; about staring reality in the face and deciding to act; about the high cost of knowledge and acceptance; and about the need for and the rightness of death.
I read it because we each, forever, are the child we once were. And that child, no matter how old, needs a talisman, needs the sustaining comfort of compassionate truth.
That’s what an artist does: Takes simple tools — a hammer, a chisel, some polish — and reveals miracles and mysteries hidden in hard things; or picks up a paintbrush full of words or pigment, spreads them across a canvas of pain and unknowing, opening our eyes to our common humanity and shared suffering, so that the unbearable is less so.
Babbitt, a writer and an illustrator, does this masterfully. In “Tuck,” she examines the frightening inevitability of dying by fashioning very human characters who suffer the torment of immortality. Many of her other books also are deceptively simple studies of deep themes; for example, the importance of words and meaning (“The Search for Delicious”), the need for belief in human societies (“Kneeknock Rise”) and the transformative power of love (“The Eyes of the Amaryllis”).
I had spent my Halloween curled up with “Tuck” and bittersweet memories of my father. The next day, I learned that Babbitt had died on Oct. 31, the very day I was consoled by her wise words about the ever-wheeling circle of life and death.
Babbitt never wanted to live forever. Her personal views of earthly immortality reflected those of the unable-to-die Angus Tuck: “You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside a road.”
But in writing a short, life-affirming children’s book about the necessity of death that writer Anne Tyler calls “one of the best books ever written — for any age,” Babbitt earned the only kind of earthly immortality worth having, that of a maker of true and beautiful things.
Natalie Babbitt, a writer and illustrator of children’s books and a mother of three, grew up in Ohio. She won a Newbery Honor for “Kneeknock Rise” in 1971 but probably was best known for her 1975 book “Tuck Everlasting,” which was a favorite of teachers and was made into two feature films. In 2013, Babbit received the first-ever E.B. White Award for achievement in children’s literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Babbitt died on Oct. 31, 2016 at her home in Connecticut. She was 84.