Natalie Babbitt’s career in children’s literature began with a picture book, The Forty-Ninth Magician, which her husband, Samuel, wrote and she illustrated. After Samuel, a college president, became too busy to collaborate on books, Babbitt began writing and illustrating children’s books on her own, resulting in more than a dozen works. Her 1970 novel, Knee-Knock Rise, won a Newbery Honor, and her beloved children’s novel Tuck Everlasting (1975) was twice adapted for film and also became a musical.
It’s no surprise that Babbitt, who died in 2016 at age 84, wrote and spoke extensively about children’s literature during her life. Barking with the Big Dogs: On Writing and Reading Books for Children compiles Babbitt’s speeches and articles spanning 34 years, and in many cases the work addresses the “big dogs,” the writers and critics who focus on work meant for adults.
“There is no reason why children’s authors should have to serve up the sherbet of the literary feast and be forced to apologize to our colleagues in the adult world because our creations melt on touch,” Babbitt writes, bringing up a theme she revisits repeatedly in this collection. Some adults are prone to reducing children to a single, monolithic audience. They deserve better, Babbitt argues: “The children I remember had precious little in common.”
Children’s books often tackle big questions in a way that’s accessible to still-developing minds. Babbitt knew that; Tuck Everlasting, for example, examined the ever-present shadow of time and the appeal of immortality. Throughout the timeless essays in Barking with the Big Dogs, Babbitt dissects these concepts for her adult audiences. Regardless of the reader’s age, imaginative work can invite people to step out of themselves and their everyday lives to explore other possibilities.
As Babbitt wrote in 1986, “In these terrible days of uncertainty and fear not just for our own individual lives but of the life of our lovely, lonely planet, we need our fantasies more than ever, especially our fantasies of hope.”