“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. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color. Often at night there is lightning, but it quivers all alone. There is no thunder, no relieving rain. These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after…”
From Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
I remember reading Tuck Everlasting to my daughter at bath time. The Tucks are a fictional family who unlocked the secret of living forever—by accident. Following a long and lucky life, they realize that they cannot die, either naturally or by violence. They live in the woods with an immortal horse, at the edge of the property of a little girl named Winnie, who stumbles across their magic on a summer day. Over the course of the story, Winnie helps protect the Tucks from a shadowy villain, representing the cruel and practical world, who would sell their secret spring for venal ends.
Winnie saves the Tucks from the shadowy villain. By the end of the story, she is the only person on earth who knows their secret. But it isn’t safe for the Tuck family to stick around. They decide to pack up their horse and move on. But before they do, the Tuck’s seventeen-year old son Jesse begs Winnie to drink from the spring when she is a little older—a teenager, like himself. Jesse’s wiser father frowns on this, but leaves it up to Winnie. They promise to return for her after enough time has passed for the town to forget. If she has tasted the spring, then she will still be alive to travel with them. She has seen their loneliness and their grandeur and must consider this choice: will she step off life’s ferris wheel and live forever, or will she keep her place in the human circle, and die?
When my daughter and I reached the final chapter of Natalie Babbitt’s masterpiece, the bath had gone cold and my daughter’s hands were pruning. We were both in anguish. But I wondered, what could someone so young understand of the temptations and sacrifices of eternal life? After all, as a professor of literature I’ve had some practice with existential questions. I know what Sartre would tell Winnie. I know what Winnicott might say. But Kelly’s cultural experience was as shallow as the bathwater. And yet, she understood the premises set forth by the book. The story had deftly guided us down a path of self-contained logic so that she might understand the question asked of Winnie.
The fact that my daughter was struck by this story signifies to me that we are innately attuned to the resonance of certain philosophical questions. In other words, we are all born small philosophers. Socrates felt that the role of children was to be educated by carefully curated parables, to be taught the basics of citizenship in the most straightforward way possible. Children’s literature, in other words, should tell them what is right and what is wrong, but should not encourage them to think about it too much. I believe, however, that children’s literature is important not because of any answers it provides (I have never liked the idea of children’s books as purveyors of pure, quasi-religious drops of wisdom) but because the questions it asks gives us a philosophical foundation that we continue to build upon for the rest of our lives.
In Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt struggles with the question of mortality’s value. She also asks, what is the view of mortality from childhood, from the breathless moment of suspension at the very top of the ferris wheel, before we fall down? What does children’s literature say about philosophy and childhood?
Thomas Wartenberg, author of A Sneetch is a Sneetch and Other Philosophical Discoveries: Finding Wisdom in Children’s Literature and a philosophy professor at Mount Holyoke, has been studying the intersection of philosophy and childhood for years. His undergraduate students actually teach philosophy through children’s books to a second-grade class.
Wartenberg sees Sylvester and the Magic Pebble as a module for thinking about epistemology; The Giving Tree as an exercise in ethics; and Harold and the Purple Crayon as a work of metaphysics. In this video of the class, you can see children exploring issues aesthetic, ethical, and ontological with as much urgency as any undergraduate.
Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5wuHRyHez0.
Play with this question, too: Are there limits to children’s ability to think philosophically? And if so, are they cognitive or cultural?