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Editorial: The Mystery in the Yellow Suit

tuckeverlastingAs an occasional adjunct instructor in children’s literature, I’ve taught Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting three times. While the students have sometimes been contemptuous of my other reading assignments (my beloved Tom’s Midnight Garden in particular seems to reveal a generation gap), they tend to get along quite well with Tuck, but they always ask the same question: “What’s with that man in the yellow suit?”

Why doesn’t he have a name? Why is he always referred to as the Man in the Yellow Suit? Why yellow? Some students venture that the yellow “stands for” cowardice, fear of death, perhaps. Bah! A little knowledge of symbolism is a dangerous thing: all I remember about Ethan Frome is that the pickle dish “stands for” betrayal. In her conversation with Betsy Hearne in this issue, Babbitt opines that she chose the color yellow because she needed two syllables. Well, Natalie, here’s two: Oh sure. In this field we often ask our artists the most peculiar questions, among them “where did you get your idea?” (I like Susan Cooper’s response: “I made it up”) and “what did you mean by that?” Any writer — any good writer — knows that what an author “meant by that” is what she said by that; the words themselves provide their own defense. What those words will go on to mean is provided by the reader.

ma00Of course, I have my own theory about the M.I.T.Y.S. I had a juvenile (using the word advisedly) interest in pulp horror fiction, with a particular fascination for Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow and Other Stories, an 1895 volume that enjoyed a small renaissance during the spacy sixties. It scared the wits out of me. “The King in Yellow” is a play-within-a-story that curses anyone who reads it with madness and corruption. Like Babbitt’s character, the King in Yellow is a figure of nameless dread. Also like Babbitt’s character, he is just plain nameless. And yellow. Is this where Natalie Babbitt got her Man? I doubt it. That yellow, so decadent for a man’s suit, is its own nightmare. We each bring to him our own scary yellow fears, and take from him our own satisfaction at his death.

While the subject of death is no barrier to children’s-book acclaim, demise in the form of perhaps justifiable homicide at the hands of a vigilante is something else entirely, and may account for the fact that, after Charlotte’s Web, Tuck Everlasting is the book most famously not to have won the Newbery. But I think this lacuna may have more to do with the Man in the Yellow Suit walking the Earth in the first place. We cannot place him, we cannot name him. And that makes us nervous.

We’re in an era of much apparent innovation in books for young people: self-reflexive stories, multiple narrators, free-verse novels, tricky endings. Such experimentation has brought us gems (Virginia Euwer Wolff’s free-verse Make Lemonade; Walter Dean Myers’s tricky Monster) as well as paste: i.e., multiple narrators disguising the fact that a novel cannot make up its mind as to what it wants to say, and spacious pages of poetic-looking line-breaks disguising the fact that a novel does not have all that much to say in the first place. But a book such as Tuck Everlasting, so conventional in form, so gentle in diction, is a reminder that some of the most unsettling, lastingly radical books are those that sneak up on you. Like Babbitt’s Man in the Yellow Suit, they come “strolling up the road from the village” to pause at your gate; you let them in at your peril and reward.

From the March/April 2000 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more, click the tag Natalie Babbitt.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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