It’s been 40 years since Natalie Babbitt’s tale of accidental immortality hit bookshelves. Tuck Everlasting featured a young girl, on the precipice of becoming her own woman, who encounters the Tucks, a family who never ages and never dies. When invited to join, the 10-year-old Winnie has to think about the consequences and purpose of a life without an end. Here, we talk with Babbitt about the importance of Winnie’s young age, the book’s powerful ending, and how one reader’s letter left a lasting impression on the award-winning author.
Reader beware: Spoilers ahead.
Bookish: The Tucks find out they cannot die after drinking water from a spring in the forest. Why did you choose a spring?
Natalie Babbitt: The tree and the spring are part of a very ancient myth. We try to explain things that we can’t change, and we like to think that we can somehow try to live forever. But when you really think about it, why would you want to do that? Unless you could keep the people you love around you, which is not likely—not forever anyway. We have a certain kind of life to lead and there’s really no other way to do it.
Bookish: Your book made waves because it introduced a lot of young readers to death. This is a popular topic, even today. Some parents were okay with this, others weren’t. But the kids seemed happy with it. Why do you think that is?
NB: I think death interests readers of all ages, but this book helps to address questions young people have about death. I think a lot of parents don’t talk to their kids about death. Many young people aren’t presented with the facts until someone, like their grandmother, dies.
Life is all around us, but it doesn’t last forever for anybody. It’s hard to deal with, but it can’t be changed. The more we learn the more we try to arrange our philosophies as honestly as possible, to something we can be happy with. It’s not easy and it’s tough on us for a long time.
Bookish: Each member of the Tuck family reacts differently to the news that they’ll live forever. Jesse is excited by a world of possibilities, while Angus longs for a life that ends. Which family member do you think you would be most like if you found that you accidentally became immortal?
NB: I would like to think that I would’ve been much more like Mae. I’m not particularly [like her,] but I put her in there because I very much admire women who are sensible and look at things the way they are. There are all sorts of ways to tell ourselves that we are going to last a long, long time and look good the whole time which is pretty silly, but we do it.
Bookish: Did you ever consider having Winnie drink from the spring and run away with Jesse?
NB: No, I didn’t. I had it arranged in my head that Winnie died but had a very happy life—you can guess that a little bit from what’s written on her tombstone. I did that because that’s the way things go, you don’t live forever and that’s what I wanted the book to be about.
From the beginning I knew she would not drink from the spring. She is the character in the story who’s the most normal and natural. And I think that because Winnie is alone and hasn’t got any siblings, and she’s got to figure things out for herself that. When she’s out on the lake in the rowboat with Pa Tuck, she’s forced to face the idea of death. It’s clear from what we know about the way the rest of her life went that she accepted it finally and lived a good life.
Bookish: You’ve said that as a child you loved happy endings. If you had read this book as a child, do you think you would’ve liked the ending?
NB: I don’t think it was a question of liking happy endings so much as being used to them. Most stories I read or saw in the movies had happy endings and, to me, it was hard to believe in them. Kids aren’t stupid; they know when something is made up. It was surprising when I finally was old enough to see other movies or encounter stories that were much more like real life. So I think, yes, I would’ve liked the ending [to Tuck Everlasting] as a child.
Bookish: You’ve said before that 5th grade is the last year of childhood. What do you think it is that makes that age so special and transitional?
NB: I remember the 5th grade very clearly; it was one of the happiest years of my life. If students are lucky they have a really good teacher who accepts the fact that they’re not toys anymore, they’re human beings. That’s the moment when bodies and lives change, and everything gets a lot more complicated. It annoys me when people talk about children at that age as if they don’t matter or as if they don’t have any sense. They’re on the road to adulthood.
Bookish: Winnie’s age, 10, seems very intentional because you view that age as a huge turning point in a person’s life. It feels vital that the story is set when she is 10-years-old and yet that’s something that they changed in the movie.
NB: You’re talking about the Disney film. Yes, they did. It was a complete disaster. I was visiting a lot of schools during the time and kids always wanted to know why Disney changed that. They liked the story the way it was.
Bookish: If you were to write the same story again now, what do you think you would do differently?
NB: I don’t think so, no. I tried to have the story be the way it really would’ve been if there was that kind of water around. It wouldn’t change your life unless you drank it, but is that what you want? What I hope is that kids read the book and really think about if they’d want to live forever. But also that they understand that it isn’t going to happen. There’s no point in sitting around waiting and knitting things you can wear when you’re 500 years old.
Bookish: Since its first publication, you’ve received letters and comments from children all across the world about the impact this story has had on them. Has any one letter or comment stuck with you 40 years later?
NB: Yes. It must’ve been about 30 years ago, there was a letter from a girl in Texas. She was in the 5th grade and she was very angry about the way the story ended because she didn’t want Winnie to die. She was a serious reader, I think. The school didn’t tell her to write to me, she was just angry about the book. I wrote back to her and told her that this was the way a lot of people felt about it, but if she could remember to write me again when she was a bit older. And she did. I got another letter from her, she must’ve been 16 or 17 then, and she said that the story ended the way it was supposed to. It was very good for me to hear that she, having thought about it and having gotten older, thought that the story ended the right way.
A gifted artist and writer, Natalie Babbitt is the award-winning author of the modern classic Tuck Everlasting, The Eyes of the Amaryllis, Kneeknock Rise, and many other brilliantly original books for young readers. She began her career in 1966 as the illustrator of The Forty-Ninth Magician, a collaboration with her husband. When her husband became a college president and no longer had time to collaborate, Babbitt tried her hand at writing. Her first novel, The Search for Delicious, established her gift for writing magical tales with profound meaning. Kneeknock Rise earned her a Newbery Honor Medal, and in 2002, Tuck Everlasting was adapted into a major motion picture. Natalie Babbitt lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and is a grandmother of three.