Natalie Babbitt – “dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born”

Natalie Babbitt, award winning author of children’s literature, died Oct. 31 at the age of 84.You may know her book Tuck Everlasting, with Babbitt’s subtle warning about immortality, but have you read any of her others?  

 I plan to remember her with my own binge reading  of:

  • The Search for Delicious
  • Kneeknock Rise
  • The Devil’s Storybook
  • Goody Hall
  • Jack Planke Tells Tales
  • The Something
  • Moon Over High Street

Roald Dahl presented his philosophy of writing at a lecture in 1990. Natalie Babbitt and her wonderful portfolio of children’s books met all the criteria. I will miss her.

“What makes a good children’s writer?

  • must have a genuine and powerful wish not only to entertain children, but to teach them the habit of reading
  • must like simple tricks and jokes and riddles and other childish things
  • must be unconventional and inventive
  • must have a really first-class plot
  •  {tell} stories that contain a threat
  •  {use} new inventions; unorthodox methods; eccentricity; secret information
  •  know what enthralls children: action, suspense, being spooked, finding treasures, ghosts, chocolates and toys and money, magic, being made to giggle, seeing the villain meet a grisly death, {seeing}the hero be a winner
  •  know what bores children: descriptive passages and flowery prose

Your story, therefore, must tantalize and titillate on every page and all the time that you are writing you must be saying to yourself ‘Is this too slow? Is it dull? Will they stop reading?’ …{If your answer is yes}, you must cross it out and start again.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

9780062255655_p0_v4_s260x420Although Neil Gaiman, author of Coraline, is best known as a writer of young adult science fiction and fantasy, his new book – The Ocean at the End of the Lane – is for adult readers. Some scenes may be too scary for adults, but the story has that same weird other worldly flavor that Gaiman fans expect.

When a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral, he detours to the site of the old farm where he grew up – now a suburban housing development – and finds the old Hempstock house with the duck pond (the ocean) still there. As he stares into the “ocean,” his thoughts fade back into an amazing incident that he experienced when he was seven years old, and the duck pond had the same life energizing force as the swimming pool in “Cocoon.” The Hempstocks are a cross between the Tuck family in Natalie Babbitt’s classic and the good witches of Oz; eleven year old Lettie, with her mother and grandmother, seem to have been around forever and can save the world from “varmints” and “fleas.”

In the flashback, when the seven-year old narrator drops Lettie’s hand, as they are battling a Monster, the Monster places a worm in the arch of his foot that later takes on the form of his new beautiful blond nanny who seduces his father and tortures the boy. Only the Hempstocks can help. After excising the monster worm from the boy’s foot, Lettie discovers that a small but important part has been left behind in the boy’s heart. The ensuing battle involves an array of fantastic skirmishes with strange birds who plan to destroy the boy to get that small piece of worm. The resolution is both sad and hopeful.

Although some of the illusions are strange, and the analogies to childhood fears and adult realities are hard to miss, Gaiman mixes his tale with imaginative magic and Roald Dahl darkness, holding the reader as captive as the narrator in his fairy ring. When the story returns to the present, the narrator finds he has been watched over the years to see if his life had been worth saving.

“I’m going to tell you something important. Outside, {grown-ups are} big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have… The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane reveals the terrors and wonders that perhaps only the child within can see.

9780060530945_p0_v1_s260x420I am now reading Gaiman’s 2009 Newbery Award winning The Graveyard Book – the tale of a toddler who escapes a villain who slaughters the rest of his family in the middle of the night, and is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Since this book is targeted for a younger audience, the horror is not described, and the story quickly shifts to suspense and adventure. The graveyard has an array of ghosts – a village – to raise the little boy they name Nobody – Bod for short. He connects with older residents who teach him to read and explain their history to him (some dating back to the Celts); younger ghosts offer companionship and play. He has already made a friend who is alive, and I have just met the ghouls – one is the 33rd President of the United States (look it up) – and Liza Hempstock, the ghost of a witch. I wonder if she’s related to Lettie.

The Graveyard Book is more fun than The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but then I tend to favor the scary fantasies that are for children. Have you read it?

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Grandpa Portman’s stories of war monsters and his childhood escape from Poland to a safe haven at a Welsh orphanage were magical to young Jake.  But as he grew older, Jake thought of them as concocted tales with fantastic doctored pictures that his grandfather used to entertain – until his grandfather’s brutal death, and the cryptic message in his dieing words.  In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs creates a world of fantasy mixed with history of World War II and a cast of strange characters.

In an effort to cure his nightmares and to uncover his grandfather’s secrets, teenager Jake and his father travel to the Welsh island to revisit the bombed orphanage.  Jake discovers a trunk full of old photographs, some copies of those his grandfather used in telling his stories.  Was there really a boy whose body was full of bees that escaped when he opened his mouth, a girl who could levitate, another girl with a mouth in the back of her head?
As Jake continues to pursue the mystery of his  Grandpa Portman’s past, Gothic elements seep into the narrative: a 2700 year old body of a sixteen year old preserved in the bog, hearts pickled in jars, a peregrine falcon who appears at Jake’s bedside.  Riggs also borrows from several familiar characters – Edward Scissorhands, Harry Potter and friends, Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck family; he even throws in time travel.  Be prepared to suspend belief and enjoy yourself.

Jake accidentally solves his grandfather’s directive and finds the “peculiar children,” each with particular powers – think X men in training. Every adventure must have villains, and when they appear, the action gets scary with the battle of good vs evil.

But the adventure is just beginning for Jake, and the next book in the series is due out in the Spring of 2013.

Riggs conveniently includes real old black and white photographs reprinted throughout the story – one of the best parts of the book. The eerie pictures from vintage collections or garage sales – all credited at the end of the book – bring life to the action: a little boy in a bunny suit, planes in the air, a lighted tunnel, and all those “peculiar” children.