“Two is the beginning of the end”
It seems appropriate to start a blog about children’s books with the ultimate tale of never ending childhood. Peter Pan is a well-known story – the boy who wouldn’t grow up, and his adventures battling Captain Hook in Neverland, have been fodder for several films and re-tellings, but I’m not sure the book is as widely read.
I was led to J.M. Barrie’s original story through a film – not the Disney version, though I grew up loving that. It was the live action release in 2003 that prompted me to actually pick up the book. I was 14, crushing on Jeremy Sumpter, and still remember debating which copy to buy. I settled on the one with the film poster for the cover, which of course is the worst version. But it was also the cheapest at $8 and I was living off babysitting money.
Anyone who’s seen any version of Peter Pan knows it’s full of imagination and adventure of every sort, and the book is written with exactly the kind of whimsy that it deserves. The reader comes across Peter Pan at the same time as Mrs. Darling. She “first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day.” That kind of eccentric detail doesn’t work in films and adds to the charm of the book.
Barrie also engages with the reader in a way I’d never encountered before and found, both then and now, enchanting. Not only does he address the audience directly in a sort of literary version of breaking the fourth wall, but also at times blatantly embraces his role as the author and therefore his ability to manipulate the story. He does this in terms of choosing what to tell the audience – at one point he summarizes a half dozen adventures of Peter and the Lost Boys, before flipping a coin to decide which one to elaborate on – but also in terms of directing the action that takes place. Upon introducing Hook, Barrie writes, “Let us now kill a pirate to show Hook’s method. Skylights will do. As they pass Skylights lurches clumsily against him, ruffling his lace collar; the hook shoots forth, there is a tearing sound and one screech, then the body is kicked aside, and the pirates pass on.”
For anyone who has only seen a film adaptation, this passage might come as a bit of a shock – Disney cut down on what is a surprising amount of bloodshed for a children’s book.
One thing Disney held on to however was the racist content. On starting this project, I was interested to see if, and a little concerned that, re-reading some of these books as an adult would take away their magic. Peter Pan certainly has some characteristics that I overlooked when younger but now find distressing – the language surrounding, and depiction of, aboriginals to start. Reading this book to my future kids would definitely provide an opportunity for discussion over racism and stereotypes. (It’s already brought on discussion in some theatrical circles – check out this article from the Globe and Mail.)
The promotion of traditional gender roles also irks me. To be honest, in many ways I identify with Wendy. I think most of my friends would describe me as a pretty nurturing and “maternal” type. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to have a mother or wanting to be a mother, and Barrie gives Wendy and her rules credit for protecting the Lost Boys from some harmful adventures. But seriously girl, you’re a kid on a magical island and you spend your evenings darning socks. I want to go to Neverland as a Lost Girl, not a pseudo mom.
I actually dressed up as a Lost Girl for Halloween once. (I’ve also gone as Wendy and Tink and am just realizing I’ve almost covered the spectrum of female characters from this story…) Of course there aren’t any lost girls in the book. Children get sent to Neverland if they fall out of their prams and aren’t claimed in seven days, and as Barrie says through Peter, “girls, you know, are much too clever to fall out of their prams.” So thanks I guess. But there are clever boys and foolish girls and girls who just want to have fun.
Despite some of these drawbacks, Peter Pan is still one of the most imaginative stories I’ve ever encountered, in a book or on a screen. And oddly makes me feel better about growing up. For one thing, Peter is really a cocky little jerk. I guess I would be too as the only person ever to manage not growing up. Secondly, this compelling argument from Mr Darling, one of the most immature characters in a novel filled with children: “‘The point is, that there is more in my glass than Michael’s spoon.’ His proud heart was nearly bursting. ‘And it isn’t fair; I would say it though it were my last breath; it isn’t fair.’” He goes on to call his youngest son a “cowardy custard.” Certainly Peter Pan makes a point that age doesn’t define your behaviour, for better or for worse.
Incidentally, if you want to see a great Peter Pan film, go watch Hook. On top of a fantastic baseball scene, it proves no one is too old for Neverland.