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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Barking with the Big Dogs

On Writing and Reading Books for Children

Natalie Babbitt

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)




Every now and then, if the fates are kindly disposed, you will come across a book and know, as certainly as you know your own soul, that it was written just for you.

I have a few such cherished books on my office bookshelf. And one of them—a signed first edition, no less—just happens to be a picture book by the inimitable Natalie Zane Babbitt.

During her remarkable career, Natalie Babbitt gave us many opportunities to fall under the spell of her storytelling magic, including Kneeknock Rise, for which she was awarded a Newbery Honor, and her beloved modern classic, Tuck Everlasting.

But for me, it is one of her picture books—Nellie: A Cat on Her Own—that will always be first in my heart.

I was in my thirties when I came across the title, which by then had already been released in paperback. I’d been trying to educate myself about children’s books, secretly wondering if I might be able to write one someday, secretly doubting I could ever pull it off.

In the book’s charming cover illustration, Nellie, a wooden cat marionette, sits in a straw hat bedecked with pink ribbon, staring—contentedly, it would seem—into the distance. The interior art is equally beguiling. (A lifelong pet owner, Babbitt’s drawings of dogs and cats practically bound off the page, their expressions every bit as nuanced as those of her humans.)

But while the art is gorgeous, it’s the story that snared me. Nellie’s life is tidily secure until the clever old woman who created her dies. How will the little toy survive, let alone dance, without someone’s help? With the encouragement of a real cat named Big Tom, Nellie learns to face her fears and embrace her independence. By the end of the tale, we see her dancing joyfully in the moonlight, reveling in her “fine view of the wide, wild world.”

It’s a lovely fantasy, delicately told. But, as with all Natalie Babbitt’s work, it’s more, so much more, than that. In a mere handful of pages, this slender book challenges its readers to wrestle with big questions. How do we define independence? What does it mean to “belong to yourself”? How do we confront our darkest fears in order to claim the light as our own?

When I went on to read Tuck Everlasting, there they were again: big questions, this time the most ancient and profound of all. Why must we die? Would it be better to be immortal? How do we press on with our lives, knowing that eventually, as Winnie Foster says, “we all just go out, like the flame of a candle”?

To be honest, Nellie and Tuck left me vaguely melancholy for a while. It hurt a little to read them. They glittered too brightly with truth. And yet they were undeniably, at their hearts, resolutely hopeful stories.

When I read this fascinating collection of Babbitt’s speeches and essays, it came as no surprise, then, that the importance of truth-telling in children’s literature is a thematic touchstone. In all these pieces, Natalie Babbitt is unfailingly generous with her own truths as well; we learn a great deal about her fears, her loves, her work, her hopes. At the same time, we’re also treated to an intriguing insider’s view of children’s literature as it evolved over four decades after she began publishing in 1966.

We read about an era when literature for teens (not yet dubbed “Young Adult”) was still in its embryonic phase. We nod in resigned agreement as Babbitt grumbles about the advent of email. We applaud as she decries the way pleasurable childhood reading has given way to assigned drudge work.

And we laugh. A lot.

How I wish I’d had the pleasure of meeting Natalie Babbitt in person! The Michigander in me loves the no-nonsense, down-to-earth midwesterner’s voice that animates her prose. (Although she moved dozens of times, her family roots were in Ohio.) Her humor is abundant, dry, and delightful. She is self-deprecating, especially about her vocation: “We’re rather a motley crew, we makers of stories and pictures.” (She’s got that right.) And I loved this: “The world looks at us in a puzzled way and wonders, ‘Why devote your life to writing for a group that has no money, no experience, and can’t spell rhinoceros? Such writing can’t be serious.’”

Babbitt can be tough on children’s books, at least the sloppy, “Pepto-Bismol pink” variety, but only because she knows children deserve the absolute best literature we can give them. She adores teachers and librarians, the true and unsung heroes, she believes, of children’s literature. But it is children themselves for whom she reserves her deepest love and respect. And because she respects her young readers, she knows their books can be hopeful without being condescending. Her stories, like all the best fantasies, are optimistic at their core. She doesn’t “deny the dark.” She “simply reaffirms the light.”

“Facing the unfaceable,” she calls it. Perhaps that’s one of her greatest gifts to us: Natalie Babbitt is not afraid to write about being afraid. In fact, she concludes that Nellie: A Cat on Her Own—my beloved picture book—is at its essence a “mini-autobiography” about her own fears. (An epiphany that came with a nudge from her psychologist son.) Babbitt claims she was a somewhat timid child who grew into a risk-averse adult, a homebody at heart. She protests that she is not and never could be a true pathfinder, an intrepid Winnie, the kind of person who walks into the woods in search of adventure, or an adventurous Nellie, happily dancing alone while bathed in moonshine and magic.

But of course Natalie Babbitt was a pathfinder. She took huge and daring risks with her writing. Like Maurice Sendak and E. B. White, she led children toward the dark places where other writers were afraid to venture. And with every marvelous fantasy, every “good story, well told,” she taught young readers how to name their fears, and thus become the heroes of their own stories.

“It wasn’t my idea,” Babbitt writes in her preface about creating this collection, but we are grateful indeed it exists. And while we enjoy her wise words, she’s no doubt ensconced in the heavenly library she describes in one of her speeches, the place where “Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie and E. B. White and Beatrix Potter and Arnold Lobel and Arthur Rackham and Margot Zemach and all the others who have added so much to our lives meet every morning for milk and cookies and have a good time talking shop.”

What excellent company she must be! For the rest of us, this brilliant book, with her fine view of the wide, wild world, is the next best thing.

Copyright © 2018 by the Estate of Natalie Babbitt

Introduction copyright © 2018 by Katherine Applegate