Going to the local bookstore, one will find that books geared to young adults are generally put on the shelves based on the general genre of the book. Large sections are devoted to science fiction and fantasy. Yet the browsing reader will not find either Natalie Babbit’s Tuck Everlasting or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web in these sections. Despite the fact that Babbit’s book includes a spring that creates eternal life and that Webb’s book features speaking and reading animals, both are placed in the young adults “general fiction” category. Other books with speaking animals (such as Redwall) take their logical place in the fantasy section. What makes these two classics different? Perhaps it is that both books make it easier to overlook their fantastic elements, inviting the reader to suspend any disbelief occasioned by the fountain of life or a speaking pig. In their own ways both authors try to create realism where they can, and by introduce the fantastical elements as part of the same universe as those realistic elements, they may convince the reader to accept both.
Both books begin with a high degree of social realism, by showing the human protagonists in situations with which the young reader can easily identify. In Tuck Everlasting, Winnie’s situation is clearly meant to be recognizable for young readers as similar to their own experiences. Her sense of boredom, her frustration with her protective family and the limitations of childhood – these are all designed to be familiar to children (specifically to the sorts of children who are avid readers). Winnie says, “I’m tired of being looked at all the time” (Babbitt 14), and certainly most children, living under the constant gaze of parents and teachers, are likely to empathize.
Similarly, Charlotte’s Web starts out with harsh social realism, as young Fern has to face the cruel reality of how adults treat animals, and to face the loss of a pet as Wilbur is given to her to care for and then she is forced to sell him. This sort of callous treatment towards animals and children will no doubt be a subject that young readers will have witnessed personally (it is extremely common, for example, for parents to give away the family dog when they move, even if the children are deeply attached to it – for that matter, simply removing children from their friends and schools by relocating may be equally jarring). The reader is able to identify with Fern, and to understand her situation as something that is essentially real – which might have happened to them, or to someone they know. It does not seem fantastical, and so it defines the fictional world as being a part of the real world. By encouraging young readers to identify the world as real in this way, both books create a willingness to accept future fantastical elements as equally real.
Both Babbitt and White have a very realistic, and sometimes dark, view of the world that underpins their writing. Even if there are elements of the unreal, their ideas about the problems and realities of the world remain. For example, White’s main premise deals with the fearfulness of animal slaughter and the fact that sensitive creatures, which may at one moment be our pets and friends, may at the next be butchered. By drawing the connection early on between Fern and Wilbur, when the girl says “If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?” (White 3) White also draws attention to the way that children are likewise likely to be threatened or abused as they grow older. Meanwhile, for all her talk about the value of living a full life and remaining part of the cycle, there is a suicidal element to Babbit’s writing, which seems to acknowledge that while life may be worth living for a time, death is actually a welcomed relief. The elder Tuck, for example, views a corpse with envy: “He was gazing at the body…as if he were entranced and—yes, envious—like a starving man looking through a window at a banquet” (Babbitt 102-103). Babbitt also takes a realistic and serious view towards human nature, and the actual environmental threats of overpopulation, as when she writes, “we’d all be squeezed in right up next to each other before long” (85).
In keeping with this overall realism, White and Babbitt both work to introduce their fantastic elements carefully. White takes the tact of having the first few chapters be entirely realistic, slowly introducing Wilbur as a thinking and feeling creature. When Wilbur finally shifts to talking, on page 16, there is a very skillful transition made. At the beginning of the page, he is shown emoting in an entirely realistic way: “It made Wilbur happy to know she was sitting there…” (White 16). Any book about an animal can contribute such emotions. But in the next paragraph, the text reads, “‘there’s never anything to do around here,’ he thought” (White 16). Here, Wilbur is shown forming full sentences, but it is still a matter of thinking rather than speaking, and still within the realm of reason. At the end of that paragraph he begins to actually speak – however, at that point he is only speaking to himself, which seems a very natural extension of thinking to himself. That he is overhead by a goose, who replies to him, does not seem such a jarring shift, despite the fact that the book has in the course of this one page moved from general fiction into fantasy.
Babbitt takes a slightly different tact, in that she breaks into fantastical elements as quickly as possible, but surrounds them with alternative myths and mystery, so that when the actual unreality is entirely explained, it seems more normal and reasonable than the alternative. When Winnie first hears Mae Tuck’s music box, her grandmother insists that it is the sound of elves. After this, she heads into the woods, and at first sight believes Jesse to be an elf. “If it’s really elves…I can have a look at them” (Babbitt 25). When he turns out to be human instead, his family kidnaps her in a most unbelievable way – Winnie herself has trouble believing it. “None of her visions had been like this, with her kidnappers just as alarmed as she was herself” (Babbitt 31). The alternative, that they are neither elves nor pirate-like kidnappers, but instead merely immortal by chance, actually seems like the most reasonable alternative. Precisely by playing up the possibility of something even stranger, Babbitt makes that actual oddity of their situation seem natural.
As one can see, it appears that the key to suspension of disbelief is the correct balance of realism and fantasy. In both books, the author uses the right amount of realistic detail and social accuracy to balance out the far-fetched nature of the story. White generally does this with extremely accurate observations about farm-life and animals. Despite the fact that his animals speak and spell, they remain immensely animal-like. Charlotte drinks blood. Wilbur dreams of rooting after mushrooms, and he is as food-obsessed and itchy as a real hog. The behaviors of White’s animals, apart from the obvious plot elements, are all extremely realistic. It is this continuous dedication to realism, even at the heat of the fantastical, that makes White so successful. Babbitt has an easier task, since her fantasy is more realistic overall (it is easier to imagine living indefinitely than to imagine all animals talking). She also, however, uses a wealth of detail to make the story seem real.
It is easy to believe in the worlds created by White and Babbit, because at every step they seem so close to our own. Both books start off firmly rooted in real-life situations, emotions, and problems. While the two authors use different techniques to prepare the reader to accept a sudden switch into fantasy, both make sure that this switch is carefully attended to and that it is not jarring. Once the reader has been seduced into believing in the possibility of this alternative reality, both authors carefully maintain the illusion of reality by including a wealth of realistic details, from the accurate portrayal of spider anatomy to the way a frog feels when you first pick it up. It is this sort of careful intermingling of reality and fantasy that has made both books such classics.
Babbitt, Natalie. Tuck Everlasting. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
White, E. B. Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper Collins, 1980.