Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Happy Birthday, Peter Pan!

Today is the birthday of J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan. Peter Pan has had many lives--he first appeared in a novel for adults, The Little White Bird, then in a stage play, then in a novel of his own--Peter and Wendy--and finally in the Broadway musical and Disney cartoon which ensured his immortality. It is only fitting that he should have so many forms; his genius--but perhaps also his tragedy--is to remain the same while everything around him changes.

I have to confess that I find Peter and Wendy, the novel, which I teach fairly often in my children's literature courses, a bit creepy. It's of course sexist and racist in its depiction of women and "Indians," but even more than that--and that's a lot--it seems to me to celebrate a kind of childhood I don't really believe in. While there's much to admire in the power of imagination that the novel clearly celebrates--the children create Neverland out of their reading and their dreams, after all--the novel also seems to insist that, for boys, adulthood is a falling-away from grace. The post-Neverland lives the Lost Boys lead as adults are dull and boring, while Peter continues to have his adventures without them (and without remembering them). Girls, on the other hand, embrace adulthood for the meager responsibility it gives them, though there is little to celebrate, either, in Wendy's poignant replacement by her daughter, and she by her daughter as well. We can, I suppose, see Barrie as a clear-eyed realist (see last Sunday's New York Times for the latest on how men would rather be boys); still, I teach Peter and Wendy as a tragedy of sorts, a story about loss that seems to me particular, not inevitable at all.

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