'The Moon': Children's Book Tackles Lifelong Themes
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Young adult fiction, or YA as its known, may have taken a distinctly dystopian turn in recent years. But move to those shorter shelves, filled with younger adult lit, and you'll find many worlds that are much like our own; filled with love and humor, and difficult decisions.
Natalie Babbitt's books have populated those shelves for the last four decades. The beloved children's book writer is the author of books like "Goody Hall" and "Tuck Everlasting," where even the magical seems somewhat down to Earth. Her newest work takes on the American dream and the choices we must make to achieve our own dreams as well. It's called "Moon Over High Street."
Natalie Babbitt joins us now. Thanks so much for being on the program.
NATALIE BABBITT: Oh, it's a true pleasure. Thank you.
MARTIN: So, this most recent book, "Moon Over High Street," takes place in the 1960s, but its topic is a very contemporary one. It's about choice that a boy named Joe Casimir has to make. Can you tell us about him and this big choice he has to make?
BABBITT: Well, part of the question about Joe is that he's lost his parents before he ever there was such a thing. But his grandmother has noticed that as an infant, he used to be aware of the Moon. But it's about having something bigger to look up to, to turn to something magical and beautiful that you can turn to. And I don't know how else to explain that.
MARTIN: And he is forced to make a difficult decision. What is the choice?
BABBITT: The choice is either to go ahead and be an astronomer, which is going to cost a lot of money for college, or to allow himself to be adopted by the millionaire who wants to train him to be a substitute for Mr. Boulderwall, the millionaire.
MARTIN: To be his heir, essentially.
BABBITT: To be his heir to you, but to be his heir that he can have complete control over. So it's not as if Mr. Boulderwall was making him a gift of many millions - not at all. He was going to have to earn it by putting his own wishes aside.
MARTIN: But the theme here is about - a theme is about security; the security that money can give us, the security that a family also gives us...
MARTIN: ...that's also about belonging. And Joe is trying to figure out where he does belong. Does he belong in the world of his grandmother and his aunt? Or can he see himself living a different life, like the people on High Street?
BABBITT: Well, he certainly muses about that. I don't think he ever changed his mind though from wanting to be an astronomer, but here was this possibility, temptingly held out to him.
MARTIN: I loved your descriptions of High Street. I remember kind of growing up in a small town and riding my bike around and, you know, skirting by the rich people's neighborhood and thinking about what their life was like there.
Do you have memories like that? You said you grew up in this small town. Was there a High Street in your town?
BABBITT: Indeed, there was a street that was on a hill and it was where the rich people lived. And that was where if you wanted to be with it, you'd try to get up to live next to them.
MARTIN: Would you call the story a fable?
BABBITT: It could be looked at like that. I think the one thing that's going to give it some trouble with readers is that it's not a fantasy. It's the only one of my books that isn't. And I don't know how that's going to be dealt with. I mean, people will expect it to be a fantasy, it's not. It's not. There's nothing in it that couldn't really happen.
MARTIN: Why did you decide to do that?
BABBITT: Because I wanted to write about money and about the effect it has on our lives, and how we don't have to look to that as the only source of becoming important to ourselves.
MARTIN: I want to ask you about how you kind of get into the mind of a young person when you do your writing. In this book, "Moon Over High Street," there's a very complicated decision, as we've spoken about. Is there something different about the way children think about big, profound choices that's different from the way adults think about them?
BABBITT: Well, I've got to go out on a limb and say no, there isn't a difference. In this country - and maybe around the world - children are irrelevant because they don't have any power and they don't have money. And that feeds the way we tend to overlook them and say, you know, what are you going to be when you grow up? Not, what are you going to be now? And that bothers me.
We think of children is all alike until they become 18, and then suddenly they are introduced to the world as separate people. That's a very bad thing and it's very hard for kids. So I can get quite, as you can see...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BABBITT: ...quite exercised about that. No, children they have a lot of the same ideas and they understand a great deal more than we give them credit for.
MARTIN: You have written many classics in children's literature, most notably "Tuck Everlasting," as we mentioned. Do the characters come to you first, Natalie? Or is it their story that kind of...
BABBITT: No, it's the story. It's the basic theme. And the whole notion of living forever is something that everybody thinks about and you start thinking about it when you're little. It's not - the parents had said to me at the time, well, you're writing a book about death for children. They don't know about death. Yes, they do. Yes, we do. And children have reacted very positively.
And teachers, bless them. Reading teachers have been wonderful with that book because it gives kids a chance to talk about it something which we would otherwise labeled philosophy - and kids don't bother with that. But those are things that they think about.
MARTIN: Why children's literature? Is it easy for you to come up with the voice to talk to talk to children, young adults, in these books? Or did you have to kind of come up with a voice, come up with the writing style?
BABBITT: Ah, Rachel, it's the same voice I use for everybody. There's no difference and they appreciate that. I had a lovely compliment a couple of months ago. I got invited to come and talk to the fifth grade at a school here. And afterward, the teacher called me up and said that one of the boys had come up to her and said: That was really good, she didn't talk to us as if we were children.
You see, they know that. They, you know, we all know that. It's not just them. It's us. We become people very quickly and it's good to be respected.
MARTIN: Natalie Babbitt, her new book is called "The Moon Over High Street."
Natalie, thanks so much for talking with us. I appreciate it.
BABBITT: Oh, it was a great deal of fun and I'm grateful. Thank you.
MARTIN: There is more for younger listeners at NPR.org, where you can find NPR's Backseat Book Club. This month's adventure is "The Mysterious Benedict Society," by Trenton Lee Stewart. Read it and send your questions to Backseat Book Club at NPR.org.
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