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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books:

True Blue
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books.. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.

Natalie Babbitt

Natalie Babbitt has a wizard's way with words. Her fantasy novels are a combination of whimsy and starch, without a trace of the precious; her short stories are full of tricksy turns of phrase that surprise the reader by their perfect applicability. Both her novels and short stories reflect Babbitt's early love of folk and fairy tales, with echoes of traditional themes resonating through tales of perilous quests, devilish encounters, and royal families. Babbitt wields her pen as illustrator as well as writer, her illustration credits including her first book (done in collaboration with her husband, Samuel Babbitt) The Forty-Ninth Magician (Pantheon, 1966); Valerie Worth's Small Poems titles (Small Poems, Farrar, 1972; Small Poems Again, Farrar, 1986; All the Small Poems and Fourteen More, Farrar, 1994; Still More Small Poems, Farrar 1978); and her own picture books (starred * below).

At the age of nine, inspired by a John Tenniel illustrated volume of Alice in Wonderland, Babbitt decided that she wanted to illustrate children's books. To that end she studied art at Laurel School and Smith College. She did not consider writing herself until she lost her spouse collaborator to his career as college dean, and began writing her own stories so she could illustrate them. Her first two picture books, Dick Foote and the Shark and Phoebe's Revolt were written in playful rhyming verse, and illustrated equally playfully. Her next book, The Search for Delicious (the story of a young man on a quest for the perfect definition of the word delicious) is a novel clearly based in her love of words, dusted with political intrigue and foolishness. The Search for Delicious was followed by Kneeknock Rise, a Newbery Honor title about townspeople more enamored of their own myth-making than the truth. In both titles foolish human foibles provide the humor, while good-hearted heroes provide the action. The publication of The Devil's Storybook in 1974 showcased Babbitt's mastery of both the short story and the structure of the traditional tale. In ten short stories about the devil's encounters with mortals, Babbitt exhibits a shrewd sense of justice and a sly sense of humor. Her devil, a trickster figure if there ever was one, is constantly bested by men and women of good cheer and kind hearts. Each tale in The Devil's Storybook is flawless, the rhythms perfect for reading aloud and storytelling. A sequel, The Devil's Other Storybook, was published in 1987.

The word classic gets tossed around quite a bit in children's literature, but it is the only word for Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting. The story of ten-year-old Winnie Foster and her struggle to decide between immortality and trusting her own life's natural end is told in elegantly simple language that allows readers to ponder complex ethical questions.

Babbitt's belief in the existence of the perfect word--"There's always one best word, if you listen for it" (Silvey, Children's Books and Their Creators, p. 43)--is what makes reading her work such a joy. Her most recent children's book, Ouch! (a retelling of a Grimm's folktale illustrated by Fred Marcellino) proves Babbitt still has her feel for the perfect word and irreverent humor. Betsy Hearne said in her Bulletin Big Picture review: "Read this to everybody you can find. . . . Such artistry is a little bit of heaven on earth." (BCCB 1/99 ) How can anyone pass up such good advice?

--Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

Books Written by Natalie Babbitt

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This page was last updated on June 1, 1999.