Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
It Might Make Time Fly in Your Classroom: "Tuck Everlasting"
There's a little sticker reading "Sci-fi/Fantasy" on the cover of my library copy of Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting. Well. I guess this novel, about the inadvertently-immortal family the Tucks, and their run-in with the mortal human world, is a fantasy, but only in the same way Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables are fantasies. For my beloved little Tuck creates and populates a world — in this case, a small town in the 1880s called "Treegap" — just as surely as those classics do, without aliens, space travel or weird people in trench coats lurking around. I hate to see this gem of a novel get brushed off to a genre audience, for it has much to teach classrooms of young adults.
First off, let's put the 2002 film version, starring then-Gilmore Girl Alexis Bledel, to the side. It's not a bad film, and I laud it particularly for keeping the hurts-but-is-still-so-right ending of the novel. But Bledel is at least 16 in the movie, and her character, Winnie Foster, is only 10 in the novel. This changes the entire feel of the work into a teenage romance, and, while that has its considerable charms, the book is more of an exploration of mortality.
There are three things that I particularly like, and try to help my students connect with, about the book. The first is the high quality of the writing, which is lyrical, challenging, and astute. The second is the way Babbitt makes careful, unusual and perfect word choices. And the third is the amount of themes crammed into the book. I say "crammed" but, in truth, Babbitt's done a wonderful job of created a streamlined story that readers of many ages respond to instinctively. Let's take a look at these qualities.
Hey Kids! It's Time for a Visit from our Friends, Metaphor and Simile! And They Brought Foreshadowing! And Third-Person Partial Omniscience!
Students feel more confident writing about literature, not to mention crafting their own writing, when they understand how it works. Yet saying to a classroom, "Let's figure out how this literature works!" is tantamount to inviting everyone to a period-long snooze. Luckily, Tuck Everlasting is written so beautifully, just the gentlest direction points up how it comes together.
From the first paragraph, which begins, "The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning," it's clear that Babbitt is a master of metaphor and simile (hey, she got one of each into her first sentence!). Her particular gifts run to using these elements in creating a setting. Whether it's the woods of Treegap, or the Fosters' home, or the Tuck's little cottage, her writing makes places burst into being in your mind's eye. I like to encourage my students to actually create visual representations of these places, using the language as a guide.
For my urban students — as well as, I suspect, many video-gaming pre-teens and teens — the complexity of the natural world is a surprise. Tuck is written to capture that world, in a way that's more engaging than a science treatise. (Well, unless you like science treatises. My bad, if so.) Babbitt does a great job of avoiding clichés about nature, and owning up to its rawness. Winnie's panic at the near-death of a fish in the boat when she goes fishing with Miles is a great example of this.
Babbitt also rocks out on foreshadowing, in a way that's both perfectly obvious (each chapter practically ends with a Law and Order-style ka-chung! of a cliffhanger, making it impossible not to read on), and so subtle that I'm still finding the hints of what's to come on my fourth read through the novel. On this last read-through, for example, I noticed how skillfully Babbitt uses the toad that, at the beginning, is Winnie's only friend. By the end of the book, the toad becomes an alter ego for her main character. The toad takes one possible path in life, and Winnie takes the other. It's easy, early on, to practically ignore that poor toad!
The book is written so that readers see all of the characters' actions, of course, but we're privy only to Winnie's thoughts. This is third-person partial omniscience, and it's fairly common, especially in literature for young adults. I think that the different styles of narration are often not explained (or, even better, shown in example) to students, which becomes a detriment when they read more difficult literature. Students at my current school have trouble following a switch from one character's head to another. Take the time, as I do, to help students identify whose mind they're in. In Tuck Everlasting, Babbitt keeps us firmly in Winnie's head, or works as an omniscient narrator.
Any Book That Features Bovine Thought on Page 5 Is Fine By Me: Words in Tuck
Babbitt, who published this in 1975, wasn't afraid of difficult words. I believe this is the only novel written for children that I've ever read that uses the non-capitalized version of catholic as a descriptor. And, as befits a novel set in 1880, she unapologetically uses old-fashioned words: Winnie wears buttoned boots, Mae Tuck serves up flapjacks. Nothing here is alienating to young readers, but they might be a bit, well, intimidated. I've rounded up about 20 possible vocab words in a list collected here, which should help. What's most important, though, is that your students feel empowered to push on. As lovely as the language is here, there's a great deal of exciting plot afoot too. So long as they are following what's happening, don't bog them down with too many big words.
Well, except bovine. Everyone should know that word.
Pick a Theme, Any Theme
Mortality is the big theme here, of course. Mae, Tuck, Miles and Jesse are all adrift in a mortal world, unbeholden to the cares of time and space. They can't die. Winnie tries to comprehend this (to Babbitt's credit, it takes a while for her to buy in to this outlandish idea, a response that seems far more realistic than that of 90% of the heroines in Jim Carrey films), and discovers her own mortality in the process. In Chapter 12, perhaps the most arresting section of the book, Tuck takes Winnie out for a boat ride, and lays out for her the way the world works. "But dying's part of the wheel," he tells her. "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." These words — and the rest of Tuck's remarkable speech — capture the beauty of mortal life, which stands in stark contrast to what the Tucks endure.
Later, when the Man in the Yellow Suit is killed (an inclusion that caused Babbitt much criticism, in a pre-Dumbledore era), Winnie must ponder the meaning of life yet again. And, of course, her biggest decision about mortality happens off-stage at the end of the book. All of these events provoke meaningful questions for your students: what is the nature of life? What have Tuck and his family learned about immortality? How is life different when we understand it is finite?
But mortality isn't the only theme. Another, which I think students will especially connect to, is the irrationality of the world of adults and the wisdom of children. Winnie sees the Tucks as almost child-like, although they have lived for over 100 years. Their unique situation seems to have allowed them to regress back to simpler pleasures, like good food, good conversation, and a sunset over a lake. In contrast, to the near-sighted greed of the Man in the Yellow Suit, as well as the control freakiness of her mother and grandmother, the Tucks embrace of the rational life is a relief. There aren't many students who won't enjoy a chance to point out the problems of our society today, and how children might be smarter about some things.
One final theme, which is my favorite. I love that this book is a love story, but it's not about romantic love. Yes, Winnie develops a crush on Jesse. When she sees him for the first time, he "seemed so glorious that she lost her heart at once." But — again, unlike the movie — the main love in the book is Winnie's falling in love with the Tuck family, which, in turn, leads her to fall in love with life.
Our students are exposed too often to books, movies, TV shows and music that posit romantic love as the be-all and end-all of life. Yet we adults all know that there is much more to life than who we choose to kiss. I love Tuck Everlasting for being original in its focus, and showing us the power and beauty of other kinds of love.
I hope this brief tour through some aspects of words and language in Tuck Everlasting will inspire or invigorate your use of this novel in your classroom. I think 7th grade is the perfect age to read this one, but I'll use it with older students who read at a lower level too. It's just one of those novels that speaks to everyone.
Now, folks, I asked you last month what works of literature you might like to see get the Ms. Reed treatment — and by that I mean, my friendly-explaining-type treatment, not my withering-death-stare-stop-that-now treatment — in this column. There's still time to speak up. I'd like to know what works of literature you want to bring into your classrooms, but lack the time to clearly prep for, or which ones you're already using, but might like a little insight into. Let me know by dropping an email or commenting here. I can't respond to everything (I do have my own little darlings to educate up, ya know) but I'm very interested. Till next time.