MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
What if you could drink the elixir of life, sip from a magical spring that would make you live forever? Would you do it? That's the question at the heart of a celebrated book for young readers that's marking its fortieth anniversary this year, "Tuck Everlasting." In the book, 10-year-old Winnie Foster has stumbled upon the secret spring and the family that's been given eternal life, the Tucks. The father, Angus Tuck, takes Winnie out in a rowboat to explain how unnatural it is to live forever, how the great wheel of life has to turn.
NATALIE BABBITT: (Reading) All at once, Winnie's mind was drowned with understanding of what he was saying. For she, yes, even she, would go out of the world willy-nilly someday, just go out, like the flame of a candle. And no use protesting, it was a certainty.
BLOCK: This is the author, Natalie Babbitt, now 82 years old, reading from "Tuck Everlasting."
BABBITT: (Reading) She would try very hard not to think of it, but sometimes, as now, it would be forced upon her. She raged against it, helpless and insulted, and blurted at last, I don't want to die.
No, said Tuck calmly, not now. Your time is not now. But dying's part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can't pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that's the blessing. But it's passing us by, us Tucks. Living's heavy work, but off to one side the way we are, it's useless, too. It don't make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I'd do it in a minute. You can't have living without dying. So you can't call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.
BLOCK: What's it like for you to read those words now, 40-some years after you wrote them?
BABBITT: I like these. I like this chapter and I think it was really hard to write. Except in a way it wasn't because this was the whole - this is what the book is about.
BLOCK: When you think back to the origins of this book and what inspired you in the first place, what was it? What got you thinking about the great wheel of life and writing a kids' book that involves death?
BABBITT: Well, it's not entirely a kids' book. But it came into my mind - I have three children and my youngest is my daughter. One day she had trouble sleeping, woke up crying from a nap. And we looked into it together, as well as you can with a 4-year-old, and she was very scared with the idea of dying. And it seemed to me that that was the kind of thing you could be scared of for the rest of your life, and so I wanted to make sure that she would understand what it was more. And it seemed to me that I could write a story about how it's something that everybody has to do and it's not a bad thing.
BLOCK: You know, I was looking, reading a letter that you wrote to your editor back in 1974. So soon before the book was published, you were working through some changes to "Tuck Everlasting" and you wrote this (reading), I have removed some of the heavier material.
Do you remember wrestling with, sort of, what the age that you were aiming for, what people might be able to take in?
BABBITT: No. I don't think I've ever done that. If I took something out, it wasn't because I thought the kids were not going understand it. It was just probably something that made the whole thing a little more laden with sorrows and stuff.
BLOCK: Didn't want to make it too ponderous for them?
BABBITT: No. Because it isn't. I mean, that's like not telling them that there's such a thing as death, but we know that early on, early on. Your favorite dog or cat is run over in the street, your grandmother - I mean, it's around us all the time and why adults think they have to hide all of that stuff, I think, are quite wrong.
BLOCK: Do you remember thinking at all when you finished writing "Tuck Everlasting" that it would still be popular, I mean, 40 years now and so many kids still read this book. I mean, would you have had a sense back then that this one had real legs?
BABBITT: No. I never thought about that at all and didn't expect it. And I give the credit for that to the teachers because they liked it, and the kids that read it, some of them thought it was too slow in the beginning.
BLOCK: You heard that from kids?
BABBITT: Yup. I got a wonderful letter from a couple of boys in Boston who thought I should add stuff in the beginning (laughter) so it wouldn't be so boring.
BLOCK: They had some ideas, yeah?
BABBITT: Yeah, they had some ideas. They wanted me to put motorcycle racing in the story (laughter).
BLOCK: Well, that would've speeded things up, I suppose.
BABBITT: Yeah, it would. Never been on a motorcycle, I should try that.
BLOCK: Well, Natalie Babbitt, thank you so much for talking with us and congratulations on the fortieth anniversary of "Tuck Everlasting."
BABBITT: (Laughter). Thank you very, very much. It's been a great pleasure.
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