The Borrowers

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The Borrowers by Mary Norton

1952

Illustrated by Diana Stanley

Whether the toy is a twig doll with a hollyhock skirt and an acorn cup or a Lego figure from a Star Wars set, children like to enact their fantasies in a miniature world. Whatever the era, diminutive has always held fascination. There is a long chain of authors who have fed this interest in a parallel world of small, anchored at one end by Jonathan Swift. No one much remembers the giant Brobdingnagians, but the image of the tiny Lilliputians staking the sleeping Gulliver to the ground is one that stays. T.H White continued the Lilliput story in his imaginative Mistress Masham’s Repose. There have been a slew of other books of variable quality. But the queen of small people was clearly Mary Norton, the brilliant English writer who created The Borrowers.

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Pod is the hardworking straightforward father, Homily the anxious harassed mother, and Arriety the spirited and curious 13 year old girl. They live under the kitchen floorboards of an old Georgian house in the English countryside, home to Great Aunt Sophie, a bedridden invalid who enjoys a decanter of Fine Old Pale Madeira every evening between 6:00 and midnight. There was a time when the house was full of borrowers, but the shrinking of the human household was accompanied by the emigration of the borrower families until only one remains. They live by quietly garnering from their human hosts – tea, sugar cubes, and biscuits, silver coins for plates, a lace handkerchief for a bedspread, a Queen Victoria postage stamp to hang as a portrait, discarded letters to wallpaper the sitting room with the writing running up and down in vertical stripes. Arriety’s bedroom is made from cigar boxes, so her view is of feathery palm trees and chiffon swirled ladies.

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Their survival depends on their invisibility – only Pod leaves their home for his borrowing forays and the only human being who sees him is Great Aunt Sophy, who assumes their long conversations are a figment of her Madeira-soaked imagination. Their routine is upset when a young boy arrives, sent from India to convalesce from rheumatic fever. Arriety encounters him on her first borrowing expedition, and the consequences of their resultant friendship threaten the existence of the borrower family. They are forced to flee, and their lives are taken up in the sequel, The Borrowers Afield.

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Mary Norton wrote six borrower books over a thirty year period – this is a rare series in which the sequels do not disappoint. The writing is light and intelligent, the characters subtly complex, the details inventive, and the stories fresh and truthful. The Borrowers was awarded the Carnegie Medal and ranks among the top children’s books ever written.

IMG_3547-629x1024The English editions of all but the last in the series were illustrated by Diana Stanley, and it is well worth hunting for them. She captured the tone of Norton’s writing and the nuances of the borrowers’ often precarious life. The same cannot be said for the illustrators of the American editions, Beth and Joe Krush, who seemed to be overly preoccupied by Victorian frippery, a style that Norton did not countenance.

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Pippi Longstocking

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Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

1945

As an adult rereading Pippi Longstocking, I had an uncomfortable sense that I had encountered this character in another guise. Could it be? Lisbeth Salander, the punk, damaged, vengeance-seeking heroine of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?

Dragon-tattoo-coverBoth superheroines who bring their superhuman powers to the defense of victims, brute strength in the case of Pippi, computer hacking in the case of Lisbeth. Both outsiders, awkward in the world, unable to read the cues of adult interaction. Both intolerant of societal norms and human hypocrisy. Both orphans, effectively. Both redheads.

As it turned out, I was right. Stieg Larsson was much influenced by his reading of Astrid Lindgren’s books during childhood. In his Millenium Trilogy, he named his alterego Michael Blomkvist after Lindgren’s boy detective series and he modeled his female feral warrior, Lisbeth Salander, after Pippi Longstocking.

Neither Lindgren nor Larsson were accomplished writing stylists. Lindgren’s prose is wooden and there is no narrative arc. Pippi is a shallow personality lacking any trace of emotional nuance. She tells us at the outset that her mother died and went to heaven, and that her father, a sea captain, was swept overboard during a storm, a catastrophe referred to thusly. “And then this annoying thing had to happen.” Even when saving small boys from a burning building, she seems largely lacking in empathy. When she disrupts the school classroom, when she explodes onto the circus ring, when she taunts the mothers at the coffee klatch with their endless complaints about servants, she is relentless and does not know when to stop. Despite the irritatingly frenetic illustrations that accompany most Pippi editions, there is nothing particularly funny about her antics – rather, they elicit the same kind of uncomfortable embarrassment that meets an off-color joke. Perhaps this is most apparent when she manhandles two burglars into submission and forces them to dance the schottische with her. Hours later, exhausted, they slink away, and I am reminded of the analogous scene when Lisbeth wreaks her revenge on her abusive guardian.

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Despite the flaws, Lindgren managed to create a compelling character whose popularity has remained intact for generations of readers. The premise is admirable – a nine year old girl who lives an unsupervised life in the Villa Villekulla, alone save for a monkey and a horse. She is resourceful, independent, irreverent, self-reliant, unconstrained. She is at her best when she shares her unfettered life with Tommy and Annika, the children next door, and it is only towards them that she shows a modicum of affection. The book is at its best when Pippi leads them into a world of imaginative play that showcases her tall tales from her former seafaring life, her transformation of the ordinary humdrum into marvels of wonder, and her 90-degrees-off quirky way of doing things. What I remember from reading Pippi Longstocking as a child was something quite simple – her conferring of treasure status on found objects (“Lumps of gold, ostrich feathers, dead rats, candy snap crackers, little tiny screws, and things like that”) and her secreting her worthless valuables in a hollow tree.

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(Illustration of Pippi with horse and monkey by Abby Haddican.)

 

The Black Stallion

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The Black Stallion by Walter Farley

1941

Illustrated by Keith Ward

Obsessions with horses are stereotypically the domain of young girls. So Walter Farley was probably wise to create a boy protagonist for his exciting horse story, thus ensuring that his book would appeal to both genders.

The adventure opens with Alec Ramsey on board a tramp steamer, returning from India where he has spent two months visiting his missionary uncle. At an Arabian port, a magnificent black stallion, wild and unbroken, is loaded on to the ship. In an ensuing storm and shipwreck, the stallion swims with Alec to a deserted island, thus saving both from drowning. As the two struggle to survive, a bond forms between boy and horse which persists through their rescue and subsequent life outside New York City.   A retired jockey sees Black‘s potential as a racehorse and arranges for surreptitious midnight training sessions at the Belmont track. The story culminates with a special match race which pits Black against the two fastest horses in the country.

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Farley began writing The Black Stallion while in high school and published it while an undergraduate at Columbia: he was not much older than his young protagonist. The book is imbued with a delightful youthful naivete. What it lacks in deathless prose, it makes up for in spirited adventure. Farley grew up in the world of horse racing and he writes convincingly about the exhilaration of being on the back of a galloping horse, whether it be while skimming over the sandy beach of an isolated island or thundering to the finish line of a track. He also understood the importance of character, both human and equine. It is a deft touch to portray the dependent relationship between the high strung Black and the old swaybacked cart horse, Napoleon, whose presence is so calming.

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If The Black Stallion appeals, there are twenty more in the series. The Black Stallion Returns is particularly riveting since it moves the action to Arabia. It includes a ruthless one-armed villain, murder in the desert sands, blood feuds, Bedouin intrigue, and, as always, a climactic race.

Keith Ward illustrated the original book, but many other illustrators have tried their hand.  Note especially the lurid cover art by Harold Eldridge (The Black Stallion Returns) and Milton Menasco (The Black Stallion’s Filly and The Black Stallion and Satan).

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The Box of Delights

 

 

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The Box of Delights or When the Wolves Were Running by John Masefield

1935

Illustrated by Judith Masefield

John Masefield’s upbringing reads like something out of Dickens. Orphaned at a young age (his mother died in childbirth, his father in an asylum), he was taken in by a domineering and despised aunt who quickly packed him off to a boarding school where he was miserable and then to a maritime school (on the HMS Conway) where he was more miserable still. After weathering (badly) a month-long ice storm of51Z5+yo35bL._AC_UL320_SR208,320_f Cape Horn, he landed in a Chilean hospital with sunstroke and a nervous breakdown before being deemed unfit and sent home. His aunt arranged for his next apprenticeship on a ship out of New York. Masefield failed to report for duty and, age 16, became a vagabond in America, determined to be a writer. The high point of his teen sailing years must have been the sighting of a lunar rainbow. Despite his traumatic experiences on ocean voyages, he is best known for his poems Sea-Fever (“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky….”) and Cargoes (“Quinquereme of Ninevah from distant Ophir/ Rowing home to haven in Sunny Palestine.”) He was a prolific writer – of poems, novels, and plays – and was celebrated in the U.K. where he was Poet Laureate for almost forty years. Along the way, he
wrote the two Kay Harker books for children, The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935), and these are strange gems indeed.

Kay Harker, like the author, is an orphan. Returning to his home and guardian for the winter holidays, he encounters a Punch and Judy showman on a station platform. This is Cole Hawlings, who gives Kay a message to deliver (“The Wolves are Running”) and the Box of Delights for safekeeping. The Box can make Kay swift or small, as well as open doors to the past. All of which comes in handy as he grapples with the nefarious and mercurial Abner Brown and his gang – their standard disguise is in the ecclesiastical robes of seminarians, but they can also morph into wolves or pirates or dive-bombing toy airplanes. The Brotherhood scrobbles (kidnaps) the Punch and Judy man, Kay’s beloved guardian, his friends Maria and Peter, the Bishop of Tatchester, and all the cathedral staff down to the choir boys. At the denouement, as the water is rising menacingly in the dungeon cells, it is up to Kay to overcome the sinister villains. And he must do so in time for the Christmas Eve celebration at the Tatchester Cathedral to take place at midnight.

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The book is richly complex with an inspired confusion of elements. There are unicorn-drawn sleighs, stags, talking rats and mice, fairies, Roman legionnaires, jousting knights, Christmas parties, carol singers, incompetent police inspectors, and innocent diversions like building snowmen or sailing toy ships a la Christopher Columbus. It’s an unusual mix but it all combines to create an odd off-kilter universe that accommodates the real world and the fantastic. Kay is the unflappable center – good natured, matter-of-factly courageous, intrepid, honorable, decent. Masefield’s genius was to combine Magic and Crime. What other master jewel thief can you think of who could collapse his soothsaying boy assistant (his head telescoping into his chest) to punish him for insolence?

Masefield, with his poet’s eye, was a master of atmospherics. Try this.

“It was a dark, lowering afternoon, with a whine in the wind, and little dry pellets of snow blowing horizontally. In the gutters, these had begun to fall into little white layers and heaps….. Kay went on alone into the street. He thought that he had never been out in a more evil-looking afternoon. The marketplace had emptied, people had packed their booths, and wheeled away their barrows. As he went down towards Dr. Gubbinses, the carved beasts in the woodwork of the old houses seemed crouching against the weather. Darkness was already closing in. There was a kind of glare in the evil heaven. The wind moaned about the lanes. All the sky above the roofs was grim with menace, and the darkness of the afternoon gave a strangeness to the fire-light that glowed in the many windows.”

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There is an uneasy eerie undercurrent of the ominous, the sinister, the creepy that runs through the story, but there are also passages of innocent delight. When read in December, it is a book that will give the reader the fantods on a wintry evening (as Peter would say) but also be a joyful harbinger of Christmas celebrations.

The endpapers and the diminutive illustrations, provided by Masefield’s daughter, reflect this odd and original tone.

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Aside:

“Jolly good chaps, the Romans,” Kay said.

“Oh, I don’t know, said Peter. “They were rather a mouldy lot. They were lucky chaps not to have to learn Latin grammar, but to know it naturally.”

Along Came a Dog

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Along Came a Dog by Meindert Dejong

1958

Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Along Came a Dog is the unlikely story of a man, a homeless dog, and a little red hen. On the first day of spring, the man enters the hen house and greets the red hen, a bright and adventurous creature when compared to the timid bird-brained white chickens and the unimaginative rooster. The little red hen’s toes have frozen and fallen off during the cold winter and she is left with an awkward ungainly gait that makes her the target of the flock’s nastiness. The man fashions rubber flippers and sews them onto his jacket: when he plants the hen’s knuckle bones into the socket holes, she can perch on his shoulder. A black stray dog, meek and starving, appears in the barnyard and becomes the little red hen’s protector. Twice banished by the man, he twice manages to find his way back to continue his mission as the hen’s guardian. By the end, he earns himself the gratitude of the man and the home he so craves.

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Dejong’s style appears simple, deceptively so. No breathless prose here – Dejong’s Dutch Calvinist background is evidenced by straightforward plots, methodically written. Behind the plain-spokenness, however, is an uncanny ability to convey the essence of character, whether it be the stupidity and meanness of a flock of chickens or the cringing self-effacement of a miserable dog desperate for an owner. In DeJong’s books, the overriding sense is one of honesty.

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In a long and prolific career, Meindert DeJong was repeatedly acknowledged for his unusual gift as a writer for children. He was the first American (he immigrated to Michigan from Holland at the age of eight) to be honored with the Hans Christian Andersen Award. He set a record when he was awarded one Newberry Medal and four Newberry Honors in a five year stretch. The Newberry Medal went to The Wheel on the School, a story of a group of young children in a Dutch village who wonder why the storks have disappeared and carry out a plan to attract their return. The Newberry Honors went to Shadrach, Hurry Home Candy, The House of Sixty Fathers, and Along Came a Dog. A decade later, he received the National Book Award for Journey from Peppermint Street.

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The Children of Green Knowe

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The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston

1954

Illustrated by Peter Boston

“A little boy was sitting in the corner of a railway carriage looking out at the rain, which was splashing against the windows and blotching downward in an ugly dirty way. He was not the only person in the carriage, but the others were strangers to him. He was alone as usual. There were two women opposite him, a fat one and a thin one, and they talked without stopping, smacking their lips in between sentences and seeming to enjoy what they said as much as if it were something to eat. They were knitting all the time, and whenever the train stopped the click-clack of their needles was loud and clear like two clocks. It was a stopping train – more stop than go – and it had been crawling along through flat flooded country for a long time. Everywhere there was water – not sea or rivers or lakes, but just senseless flood water with the rain splashing into it. Sometimes the railway lines were covered by it, and then the train noise was quite different, softer than a boat.”

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So begins The Children of Green Knowe. And already we are witness to a rare exquisite prose and a gift for conveying character, describing nature, and creating mood. Lucy Boston penned this, her first manuscript, at the age of 62, and she proceeded to write six volumes of the Green Knowe chronicles, inspired by the 12th century Norman house that was her home.

Tolly is en route from his lonely boarding school existence to spend the Christmas holidays with his great grandmother in the ancient castle of Green Knowe. Mrs Oldknow provides the kindness, wisdom, and solace that is lacking in his life, his father and step-mother being off in remote Burma. She shares with him the stories of three children who lived at Green Knowe in the 17th century, and gradually Toby, Alexander, and Linnet come to people Tolly’s world. Lucy Boston is able to convey perfectly the palpable richness that accompanies the spirit children, even when they are invisible and silent, contrasted with the flat emptiness when they are absent.

The beautiful blend of reality and fantasy that is introduced in The Children of Green Knowe is continued in The Treasure of Green Knowe, every bit as good as the first. This time “the others”, who come from the turn of the 19th century, are Susan, a young girl blind from birth, and Jacob, a slave boy from Barbados brought to England to be her eyes. The Green Knowe chronicles, with their breathtaking writing, are a treasure of children’s literature, and it is a shame that they are so little known.

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Box:   “At one side there was a beautiful old rocking horse – not a “safety” rocking horse hanging on iron swings from a centre shaft, but a horse whose legs were stretched to full gallop, fixed to long rockers so that it could, if you rode it violently, both rear and kick.”

Box: “At school he was learning to ride real horses. They were not, alas, at all like Feste, Toby’s horse. Their coats were not shining silk but rough like railway upholstery, and when one patted them, clouds of dust came out.”

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Black Beauty

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Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse by Anna Sewell

1887

Black Beauty chronicles the life of a horse in Victorian England, from birth to final home. Born into the world of the landed gentry, he works as a riding and carriage horse until a drunken coachman recklessly gallops him to a fall, thus irrevocably damaging his knees. In an inexorable downward spiral, he is sold from one owner to the next until he ends up as a London cab horse, whipped by a cruel driver who pushes him past the limits of endurance until he drops in his traces. By a fortuitous twist, he is sold to someone who perceives his good blood lines and he ends up not far from his ancestral home, cared for by a coachman who had looked after him when they were both young.

Written in 1887, Anna Sewell intended her book “to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses”. She wrote it as an instructional treatise for those who worked with horses, rather than a children’s book. After working on it for six years while a housebound invalid, she sold it to a publisher for 20 pounds and it had an initial run of 100 books. It has since sold over 50 million copies and has never been out of print, a run-away success that was wholly unanticipated. Sewell, unfortunately, never witnessed her success, since she died only a few months after publication. Her aims were certainly realized, however, since Black Beauty was instrumental in effecting improvements in the treatment of horses and in the abolition of the use of bearing reins, a cruel practice in vogue at the time which forced carriage horses to keep their heads high.

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Black Beauty was written as a first-person (or rather first-horse) narrative and it is a tribute to Anna Sewell’s knowledge and sensitivity that she so realistically and empathetically captures both the pleasures and tribulations of a horse. Every reader can feel Black Beauty’s distress when the cold bit is forced into his mouth when he is broken in, or Ginger’s angry desperation at having her head pulled back tight by the bearing reins. It is this getting inside the experience of a horse that is the book’s real strength. And Anna Sewell’s earnest sermonizing (her Quaker background and anti-temperance activities are much in evidence) is interspersed with enough exciting adventures (the broken flooded bridge over which Black Beauty refuses to take his master, the fire in the stable, the midnight ride for the doctor, the lady on a runaway horse) to keep children enthralled.

The Hundred Dresses

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The Hundred Dresses by Eleonor Estes

1944

Illustrated by Louis Slobodkin

A literature written specifically for children did not begin to evolve until the 18th century, prior to which children used the Bible for their first primer. Most early children’s books were moralistic tracts written with the goal of instructing values and manners. Towards the end of the 20th century, a different instructional motivation in children’s books took hold in the multicultural social realism movement, with stories purposely written to promote tolerance or create an understanding of adoption, divorce, death, alcoholism, same sex parents, or the trauma of displacement caused by the arrival of a new baby. All books inform, but those written with the goal of instruction may serve an immediate need but rarely enter the pantheon.

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An exception is The Hundred Dresses, still as moving and powerful today as when it was written by Eleonor Estes in 1944. Wanda Petronski is a motherless child who is tormented by her classmates because of her poverty, her Polish immigrant roots, and her fanciful claim of having 100 beautiful dresses in her closet. The story is told from the point of view of Maddie, secretly compassionate but lacking in courage, fearful that she herself may be ostracized if she remonstrates with her best friend, the popular Peggy. After Wanda’s family moves from the town, driven away by prejudice and teasing, her tormentors discover that the 100 dresses are beautifully painted designs that reflect an extraordinary talent.

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Eleanor Estes presents a sensitive and unshirking portrayal of childhood cruelty. The book is subtly nuanced: through a final gift of generosity, Wanda offers forgiveness to Peggy and Maddie. Yet Maddie never apologizes, despite her professed intentions, and thus there is no comforting resolution for her, no absolution of her shame. She remains haunted by the painful image of Wanda standing alone in a sunny spot by the wall in the school yard, ostracized by the laughing circle of girls.DSC01477

There is something about Louis Slobodkin’s soft shaded lines, featureless faces, and white space that captures the terrible loneliness of a friendless child. The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Slobodkin was largely a sculptor until a chance vacation encounter with Eleanor Estes resulted in his trying his hand at book illustration. He collaborated with Estes on six of her books, including the Moffats trilogy with which she launched her highly successful writing career.

 

 

Stuart Little

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Stuart Little by E.B. White

1945

Illustrated by Garth Williams

It seems hard to fathom, but Stuart Little was blacklisted by Anne Carroll Moore, arbiter of children’s literary taste for decades while head of the children’s room of the New York Public Library. Was it the “monstrous birth” that some decried upon its publication? There was something unseemly about a two inch mouse being born, fully formed, to Mrs. Frederick C. Little, enough so that in the film version made half a century later the diminutive character was fetched from an orphanage. Children, forever willing to suspend disbelief, had no trouble with the details of Stuart’s arrival and immediately embraced him, gray hat and little cane and all.

For what a character E.B.White created – the debonair, steadfast, adventurous romantic who recognizes Beauty in the form of Margalo, the rescued bird, and goes in quest of his holy grail when she flies north. There is excitement along the way – his accidental roll-up in the window shade, his knight-like protection of his friend from the predation of the feline Snowbell, his being dumped into a garbage truck and taken out to sea.

The most memorable is his adventure at the Conservatory Water in Central Park. Dressed in sailor suit and sailor hat, he captains the schooner Wasp to victory over boorishness in the form of the Lillian B. Womrath. Few who have read the story can walk by the model boat pond without remembering the race. White could write movingly about boats, with which he had a lifelong and complex relationship. In a late essay (The Sea and the Wind That Blows), when he was thinking of giving them up, he wrote, “A small sailing craft is not only beautiful, it is seductive and full of strange promise and the hint of trouble.” All of which comes across in Stuart’s experiences.

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The tone changes when Stuart heads out of town. As he motors north in his beautiful yellow and black miniature automobile, filling up with five drops when he needs to refuel, White waxes lyrical. We hear the notes of Thoreau as Stuart enters the lovely village of Ames’ Crossing. In place of the schooner, Stuart acquires a canoe, Summer Memories, in which he paddles in an idyllic and completely imagined interlude. This is a book of exquisite tenderness, of quiet honesty, of goodness. It is a book about the search for the unattainable and the quest for beauty. When asked by Stuart what is important in the world, a boy responds, “A shaft of sunlight at the end of the dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby’s neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy.” What other writer for children had such respect for his young readers?

 

Tuck Everlasting

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Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

1975

The perverse unfairness of the human lot is not lost upon children, and they begin ruminating about death from an early age. They grieve in anticipation of the death of their parents, they cry at the funerals of pets, they anguish over their own eventual demise. Depicting the inevitable cycle of life and death, children’s literature is replete with the tragic endings of beloved characters. Who has not shed tears at the death of Charlotte the spider or Beth in Little Women or Old Yeller?

With the angst associated with mortality as the norm, it is unsettling to read Tuck Everlasting which portrays a family condemned to immortality. Mae and Angus Tuck, along with their two sons and their horse, happened upon a forest spring 87 years earlier which, unbeknownst to them, conferred eternal life. The youngest son, now 104, is doomed to be a 17 year old teenager forever. The older son was abandoned by his wife after twenty years of marriage: fearing the hand of the devil, she took their two children with her. The family is forced to lead a lonely wandering life, unable to put down permanent roots or develop friendships. When ten year old Winnie, the protagonist, discovers their secret, she is faced with the choice of joining the Tucks in their immortality or accepting her three score and ten. It is Angus, the melancholy and gentle father, who ruminates upon the meaninglessness of life without change, growth, and death.

This is a thought provoking book of considerable sophistication and depth. Consider Angus’s theory, for example, that the spring was an isolated remnant of an alternative world plan, subsequently abandoned. Or the Tuck’s speculation about other souls who might have drunk from the spring, roaming the world in a similar suspended state of endless being, but with no marking to permit recognition by fellow immortals. These provocative ideas are presented alongside a plot line that includes a kidnapping, jail-break, and murder, enlivened further by a Mephistophelian yellow-suited huckster lurking in the woods. Natalie Babbitt is a gifted writer who weaves her narrative through startling descriptive prose: “the hard brown-yellow light” heralding impending rain or the way Winnie’s mother and grandmother sit in the darkened parlor, “their knees loose” in the oppressive heat. It is an unusual book with an unusual tone that defies easy characterization – part Southern gothic, part New England puritan, part Midwestern goodness.