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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Top 100 Children’s Novels (#20)

And now that we’ve hit the Top 20 on the Children’s Novels list we’re dropping down to a mere one a day. Just to delay the suspense, you understand.

#20 Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (1975)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#3)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#7)(#7) (#8)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#10) – 143 points

Never has mortality been articulated so beautifully. – Eliza Brown, Assistant Retail Manager, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

To me the “perfect” book. Moving, poetic, for children, but with so much more. With its brevity, especially compared to post-Potter fantasies, no word is wasted. – Janice E. Bojda, Head of Children’s Services, Evanston Public Library

I did not think that I liked Tuck Everlasting when I was a kid. I was a sensitive child, which is to say, a wimp. Happy endings were far preferable to unhappy. Life was to be tied up in a neat little bow, thank you very much. None of this moral complexity business. And unhappy children’s literature? Every time I met an ambiguous ending or one that didn’t ascribe to my strict sense of how-a-story-should-end (Stuart Little stands out in the mind) I was perturbed. Seriously perturbed. Tuck Everlasting perturbed me. Yet even as I lamented the lack of a joyous finale as well as the fate of the poor eternal toad at the end (the true victim of the book, in my eyes) I was fascinated with this story. Couldn’t stop thinking about it. Here was a book that brought up an issue that humanity has grappled with since the dawn of time. I couldn’t look away. I still can’t.

The plot from American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction reads, "The heroine of Tuck Everlasting, Winnie Foster, is an overprotected child who inhabits a no nonsense house guarded by ‘a capable iron fence.’ Unaware that the spring of eternal life quite literally bubbles in the nearby wood, Winnie has lived in the protected oasis of her home for ten years. When she finally ventures into the woods, she is kidnapped by the Tuck family, who have innocently drunk from the fountain of youth with pernicious results. They learn that immortality without growth, change, or death is an infernal paradise–a curse, not a blessing. The Tucks realize that their secret has cosmic implications, that it must be guarded from the villainous ‘man-in-the-yellow-suit’ at all costs. When this evil person threatens to use the secret to acquire wealth and power for himself and to use Winnie as a freak, after he forces her to drink the water, Mae Tuck kills him in an act of violent retribution. While the act resembles the swift justice of a folktale, it has complicated consequences. Winnie in her turn must act to save Mae, whom she loves, and to protect the secret, which she is not sure she believes. Eventually the reader learns that Winnie has embraced her mortality and affirmed her humanity, her place on the wheel, by choosing to become ‘Winnie Foster Jackson, Dear Wife, Dear Mother’."

Back in 2000 Betsy Hearne interviewed Natalie Babbitt in the March/April 2000 issue of Horn Book about the book for its 25th Anniversary. About the story’s creation Babbitt said, "It was hard to find the right way to begin it. There were a couple of other beginnings that aren’t around anymore, because there were so many piles of paper that I finally gave everything to the University of Connecticut. But once I got started it was easy–partly because of the setting, which is a real place. It’s always fun to write about a real place. In upstate New York we had a cabin on a pond, exactly like the Tucks’. . . . Everything about that place in the book is true, including the mouse living in a drawer. (It was there when we first moved in, but we didn’t keep it the way the Tucks kept theirs.) Everything about the pond, about toads–there were a lot of toads there–and frogs, everything is exactly the way it was in real life. All I had to do was fit my characters into the setting."

It was particularly interesting hearing about her process on the book. In that same interview with Hearn, Babbitt says, "As far as drafts are concerned, the way I’ve always worked is different from some of my colleagues who go from A all the way to Z and then start all over again to do their rewriting. That’s a perfectly good way, but I rewrite each sentence when I come to it until it’s just the way I want it. So in that sense Tuck didn’t take any longer to write than any of my other books, about a year–nine months to a year, something like that. My editor, Michael di Capua, did some editing on it, but he did more boosting than anything else. He’s very good at that."

It is nice to see this book crack the Top 20 like it has on this list. Folks have been debating the "classic" status of this book for years. Heck, fellow author Tim Wynne-Jones even wrote an article about it in the November/December 2000 issue of Horn Book called "Future Classics". Said he, "My guess is that in the next hundred years they aren’t going to find a cure for death. Our children’s children’s children’s children’s children might live to be a hundred and forty–poor souls–but while they are still children, each of them will one day suddenly realize, as have we in our twentieth-century childhoods, that he or she will not live forever. And it would be nice, on that strange morning, if a kind bibliobot put Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting into the child’s hand. I think, a century from now, that Tuck will still have something essential to say about the human condition. And how well it does so, with flawless style, in words that are exact and simple and soothing and right."

If Charlotte’s Web is the book that introduces many children to death, Tuck Everlasting is the book that makes them sit down and think about it.

Babbitt also has some choice words about that magnificent villain without a name, the man in the yellow suit. "I have known a couple of people who are like him, one of whom he is modeled after–a man now dead who was a completely amoral person, neither good nor bad. To be bad you have to have some understanding of good and then choose to go against it. That’s the way the Christian or Judaic devil is; he has been in heaven and he goes to hell. The man in the yellow suit isn’t like that. He doesn’t see good or evil. He sees what he wants. He’s totally selfish, totally self-absorbed, and that to me is much scarier than somebody who is simply bad and going against the law, because there’s no way to reach him."

That’s one of the joys of finding out information about Ms. Babbitt. The fact of the matter is that she’s a magnificent essayist in her own right. Some authors work solely on the fictional side of things and don’t bother with articles, essays, and the like. Ms. Babbitt, on the other hand, is just a brilliant writer to watch, no matter what she’s writing.

For example, in a May/June 1993 Horn Book article called "Drawing on the Child Within: Writing Entertaining Children’s Books with Honest Characters" Babbitt mentions Tuck Everlasting only once directly, to make a rather good point. Says she, "… the sad thing is that even if you aren’t writing teaching books, the children, poor things, accustomed as they are to being taught, will very often assume that you are trying to teach them. I get letters from readers explaining to me, in a tired way, what they have learned from my books, especially Tuck Everlasting. This is one of the downsides to this business of using stories instead of textbooks to teach reading. The stories are turning, themselves, into textbooks. I worry about that. Reading stories ought to be for pleasure, not schoolwork. So I say, when I answer letters like those I’ve just described, that I wasn’t trying to teach anything."

We talk about great crimes in Newbery history, but many of us forget that Tuck Everlasting did not garner a National Book Award or any kind of a Newbery in its year. What were the Newbery winners instead? Well, the award proper went to Susan Cooper’s The Grey King and the Honor books were The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis and Dragonwings and Laurence Yep.  Not a bad selection by any stretch of the imagination.  You can see how easily The Grey King could have slipped down and allowed Tuck to carry the gold, though.  One wonders what the arguments against it could have been.

  • Read some of the book here.

Booklist (and the aforementioned Betsy Hearne) said of it, "With its serious intentions and light touch the story is, like the Tucks, timeless."

Horn Book said, “Rarely does one find a book with such prose. Flawless in both style and structure, it is rich in imagery and punctuated with light fillips of humor.”

The New Yorker called it, “A fearsome and beautifully written book that can’t be put down or forgotten.”

The New York Times Book Review said of it, “Exciting and excellently written.”

And The Boston Globe concluded that, “Natalie Babbitt’s great skill is spinning fantasy with the lilt and sense of timeless wisdom of the old fairy tales. . . . It lingers on, haunting your waking hours, making you ponder.”

That classic yellow cover we all remember on the first editions of this book? Well, much like authors Louise Fitzhugh or Lois Lowry, Natalie Babbitt is also an artist and she painted that watercolor for the jacket to (according to Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children), "create the feeling and mood that she wanted."  There have since been others.

I knew about the 2002 film they made of the book, but I had the strangest inkling that it wasn’t the first film of its kind. Sure as shooting, I was right. In 1981 Tuck Everlasting was released to the public.  Of course it’s the 2002 version that folks seem to remember. Say what you will about it, Ben Kingsley as the man in the yellow suit isn’t a bad casting idea in theory. Ditto Sissy Spacek as Mae and William Hurt as Angus.

That was back when they still used Enya in the movie trailers *shudder*. One can’t help but wonder whether if this movie came out today if it would sell better, just because of the whole teen romance trend we’re seeing thanks to Twilight.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. David Ziegler says

    YES! I am so happy this book made the top twenty. The thought of Natalie Babbitt carefully crafting and rewriting each sentence explains so well how perfect this story is. I agree with her that chidren’s novels most need to be read for pleasure. The idea of the totally self-absorbed person reminds me too much of some people in today’s overly busy world. I hope this book will remain a popular classic for many years.

  2. not really sure why, but when I read Tuck as a child the image of Dick Dastardly from the old Hanna Barbara cartoons (google him) popped into my mind’s eye when I imagined the man in the yellow suit and I’ve never been able to shake that imagery. Even when I reread Tuck later in life Dastardly was still there villainously twisting his mustache.

  3. YAY!! One of my favorite books from childhood! Just hearing the title takes me back to my 6th grade classroom where the teacher read two chapters each day, after lunch. The ending had the whole class, including our teacher, in tears. I also fondly remember the 1981 movie (which I saw post-reading, thank goodness). It was a favorite in the early days of cable when they would play the same 3 movies all day long (another favorite being the 1973 version of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler with Ingrid Bergman).

  4. Kate Coombs says

    >>I did not think that I liked Tuck Everlasting when I was a kid. I was a sensitive child, which is to say, a wimp. Happy endings were far preferable to unhappy.<< So how did you get over that, exactly? 'Cause I'm still a wimp! I appreciate Tuck Everlasting, but it breaks my heart every time. (I love the less acclaimed Search for Delicious, though!)

  5. Dunno. Life’s too short to read just the slap dappy cheery, I guess.

    Sidenote: What was the last great work of children’s literature to have a complex potentially unhappy ending?

  6. RM1(SS) (ret) says

    1972? Wow – I’ve heard of the book, but hadn’t realised it was that old! I suppose I’ll have to read it now…. 8)

    “Just to delay the suspense, you understand.” Gee, thanks.

  7. I am so glad this made the top 20. I always loved it because it made me bawl.

    Your sidenote is interesting: I can think of plenty with NOT complex sad endings (Bridge to Terabithia…), but not any like this where it’s only potentially sad.

  8. Genevieve says

    >Sidenote: What was the last great work of children’s literature to have a complex potentially unhappy ending?< When You Reach Me? SPOILERS The laughing man is dead, after all, and we know who he is and that he's a very likeable person. Yes, that person won't die for a long time and will have a happy relationship, but on the other hand, he just died right in front of her and she now knows what he went through to do that.

  9. Another one to reread. I read it while I was in college but it was so long ago to be fresh. I didn’t find it as a child, I know I’m one who would have been blindsided as well.

    My goal this week is to booktalk and get each title on the countdown into my kids hands. Except for Percy Jackson, naturally, as their hands are all ready all over it.

  10. Chrisin NY says

    Good one Genevieve.

  11. Genevieve, you’re brilliant.

  12. Maybe this is already a common thought, but reading this summary I was suddenly struck by the similarities of Twilight to this book. Winnie’s choice and the secretive family and so on. Anyone?

  13. re: brilliant

    Genevieve is also one of only 10 participants that is 2 for 2 in the Battle of the Books Bracket Challenge…

  14. rockinlibrarian says

    Thank you for alerting us to Natalie Babbitt’s essays– I now want to seek them out and read them! Babbitt is someone who I always remember as a Really Amazing Writer, but when I look at the list of all her books I’ve read (which may be all of them even), none of them really stands out in my memory. It’s more what she does with words that I admire, the poetry of it.

  15. I always think of The Giver (which I’m hoping to see any day now) when I think of complex, could-go-either-way endings. Not newer, but newer than Tuck.

  16. My Boaz's Ruth says

    ACK! I just remembered one I’d forgotten. hope this counts as YA — Ender’s Game!

  17. Genevieve says

    (channeling the Cowardly Lion) “Shucks, folks, I’m speechless.”

    Wendy, my son (who I think is also 2 for 2 so far, Eric? depends whether he changed his vote to Charles and Emma before or after he told me to submit his bracket) also thought of Twilight. We looked at the book reveal this morning, and he asked me about the book (which he hadn’t heard of – it was never one of my favorites so I hadn’t introduced it), I told him what I remembered from 25ish years ago, that there’s a family that’s immortal and they’ll always stay at the age they were when they turned immortal, so the son is always 17 (I may be wrong on the age), and he wants this teenage girl to become immortal too and stay with him – he said, “Oh, like Edward Cullen.” I had never considered that, but yes, some of the same disturbing (to me) idea that a teen boy wants a teen girl to give up everything about her human life to be with him. (Though, yeah, Edward keeps saying he doesn’t want Bella to do it.)

  18. Eliza Brown says

    I’m so happy to see Tuck Everlasting make it to the top twenty! The Northeast Children’s Literature Collection at UConn has the archives of the manuscript, artwork, and Babbitt’s letters which is a real thrill to see firsthand if you get the chance. I found a letter in the archives which said that the Newbery committee had trouble with the fact that the tree that touched the immortal stream could be marked by carving and could be destroyed by lightning, but that the Tucks couldn’t be harmed by a bullet or ever die. Interesting stuff…

  19. Laurie Schneider says

    Another complex, none-to-happy ending…and a fine work of literature to boot: Gary Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.

  20. I started rereading TUCK today and within the first couple of chapters totally thought of TWILIGHT. Except, of course, Winnie ultimately makes the wise choice. (With which I thoroughly disagreed when I first read the book as a youngster… couldn’t really blame me, Jesse Tuck was definitely a Literary Crush.)

  21. Melissa ZD says

    How about Calpurnia Tate for a complex potentially unhappy ending?


    You don’t know, after all, whether she is going to get her heart’s desire, or whether she is going bend or be bent to convention. And you can hope, but don’t *know*, if she can be reconciled to either path.

  22. Scrumptious says

    So far at least 5 of the books from my top 20 have appeared, including this one, but still only 2 from my top 10. I despair for the lesser-known works on my top 10 list.

    If “number of buckets of tears cried” were the sole factor for determining the best children’s chapter books, this book would be #2. Where the Red Fern Grows would, of course, be #1.

  23. Terri Street says

    I have been swamped at school and reading Fuse 8 was one of the balls I dropped in the process. I got back on board today and was so glad to see that my all-time favorite children’s novel had cracked the top 20 (although it deserves a higher place!). I am eagerly awaiting the rest of the top 20, because I can’t imagine any book better than this one… although Bridge to Terabithia and When You Reach Me come close.

  24. When I first read Twilight I immediately thought of Tuck Everlasting.


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