Somewhere amid the news of the last two weeks (pretty intense news cycle, I understand) came word that Natalie Babbitt had died of lung cancer at the age of 84. For someone whose career spanned 45 years, her output was relatively small: nineteen novels and picture books (as writer) and four picture books as illustrator. Her training was in art, a fact few readers remembered once she had published, in 1976, her most enduring story, Tuck Everlasting. Though overlooked by the Newberys that year, Tuck has migrated into the land of the classics, regularly appearing on Top 100 lists and inspiring two movies and a Broadway musical. Its 40th anniversary last year spawned tributes across the internet, including mine.
I read Tuck to my kids when we were homeschooling, and it won a lasting place in my heart. But almost as much, I loved The Search for Delicious, a gem that has not stood the test of time so well (for this essay, I had to locate a copy through inter-library loan). It’s a fairy-tale that takes place in a small kingdom (see the endpaper map) presided over by a benign king and queen. Though an ordinary kind of place, the kingdom is built upon legends that survive as songs:
Nobody believed [dwarves and mermaids and tree people] were real any more except for an occasional child or an even more occasional worker of evil, these being the only ones with imagination enough to admit to the possibility of something even more amazing in the world than those commonplace marvels which it spreads so carelessly before us every day.
Both child and evil-worker appear in the story, brought together by an ordinary, rather boring project: the king’s dictionary. Prime Minister DeCree is in charge of writing the dictionary, and all goes swimmingly up until the d’s. Specifically, the definition of “delicious.” To the PM, the epitome of delicious is fried fish. The king objects; obviously, it’s apples. To the queen it’s Christmas pudding, to the army commander it’s something else, and before long fights are breaking out in court. DeCree fears civil war, a prospect so ominous that the king declares a vote must be taken. A messenger will ride from town to town enrolling everyone’s choice, and the food with the most popular appeal will be the official definition of delicious. No one seems more suited to the role of messenger than Gaylen, DeCree’s adopted son. A pleasant youth, whose very name means “little healer,” he sets out on the mission with enthusiasm.
Trouble looms at the very first town. The people eagerly line up to record their votes, but before many names are on the record . . . loud arguments, scuffles, and fistfights. Civil unrest grows at the next town, and by now Gaylen realizes that there’s something behind it—or rather, someone. The evil Lord Hemlock is using the instability of intolerant opinions to foment rebellion and seize power for himself. That’s not all: Hemlock also intends to use the power of those dwarfs, woldwellers and mermaids that no one believes in anymore. His will collides with Gaylen’s as a national crisis unfolds, and Gaylen is tempted to despair: “People are unbearable! They won’t listen, except to lies, and they fight all the time and I have had enough!”
A reader can certainly sympathize. I finished reading, or re-reading, The Search for Delicious on November 10, as conflicting narratives were clashing over the results of our latest election. Mayhem has ensued in some places, including riots, screams, insults, fisticuffs. What’s behind it all? Well, it seems people disagree—not only one their definition of “delicious” but also of “evil,” “hateful,” “tolerant,” “acceptable,” and a host of other terms that might or might not relate to public policy. Finding reconciliation in disagreement is democracy’s big project, and always will be. The first place to start, it seems to me, is defining terms, and acknowledging that my delicious is not yours. Second, reaching back to history (our “national legend”) for instruction and examples to follow (or not to follow). Third, finding the key that will open the door to common ground (keys & doors play a pivotal role in The Search for Delicious). Fourth, letting go what you can’t have, and strategizing for another day.
That’s the great thing about a good children’s story—actually, it’s the great thing about excellent literature in general. Stories can’t tell us what to do, because they have no such authority. But they can illuminate the path a little.