Lessons Rereading Books from my Childhood: Peter Pan

My eldest son was upset about going to bed one night, feeling like he was missing out on more time to play.

"The days go so much faster now" he said.

"Yes, that's what happens when you grow up" I responded.

"I never want to grow up!"

I found myself responding with this infamous opening line, "all children, except one, grow up." 

That's how we started reading Peter Pan.

I grew up on Peter Pan, the Disney version, the Mary Martin musical, and of course Hook (tear!). It's one of those stories that has been reprised over and over again with prequels, sequels, and remakes. Is anyone else really excited for the live broadcast version in December? Christopher Walken as Captain Hook?! Hello, must watch TV. 

But back to the book. As much as I was obsessed with Peter in almost any form, what I read as a child was most likely an adapted version, and if it wasn't, I was too young to appreciate what was really going on in the text apart from what I recognized from the movies. Let me also just point out here, that the original version of Peter Pan (or Peter and Wendy), was a play, and the book is a later novelization of that by the same author, J.M. Barrie. Actually, there are several early versions of the story, but specifically we read the 1911 novel based on the play.

Before we get too indepth, here are just a few bullet points that stood out to me upon first reading:  
  1. The journey to Neverland is long, perilous, and scary
  2. Captain Hook is also way scarier than his goofy animated portrayal
  3. Tinkerbell is a curvy, sassy broad with a potty mouth, and even though she tries to kill Wendy, we still love her. It's not her fault really. Apparently, because fairies are so small, they only have room for one thought or emotion at a time. This accounts for her extreme swings from vindictiveness to kindness.
  4. Tigerlily was a warrior. When I watched the Disney movie again with my son, I was so angry with the depiction of Tigerlily. She was not just the "Chief's daughter", she basically called the shots. We won't even get into the overt racism here with regards to the Picatinny tribe (the Natives of Neverland), but Tigerlily was definitely way more badass in the book, though admittedly still a little gaga over Peter-- but everything revolves around Peter, it's his world afterall. 
Now to the deep stuff: 

From the very beginning of the text, there is an ominous feeling, Peter sweeps in like a mysterious wind, a larger than life presence. The narrator basically tells us how "cunning" Peter is, by convincing them to come to Neverland, as if we are not to trust him. The flight to Neverland is harrowing. Michael falls and almost drowns several times. Also, bumping into clouds actually hurts. Peter steals food out of the mouths of birds, and the birds chase them, and this is how they eat-- it's all a big game. Peter is fearless, and his actions, though "games" to him, present real danger for the Darlings:
"'Save him, save him!' cried Wendy, looking with horror at the cruel sea far below. Eventually Peter would dive through the air, and catch Michael just before he could strike the sea, and it was lovely the way he did it; but he always waited till the last moment, and you felt it was his cleverness that interested him and not the saving of human life. Also he was fond of variety, and the sport that engrossed him one moment would suddenly cease to engage him, so there was always the possibility that the next time you fell he would let you go." 
We get the sense more than once that Wendy must be having second thoughts, but alas, they have already gone too far to turn back. So Peter is at once their protector and leader, but also alarmingly unreliable. Clearly, Wendy has an "I can fix him!" complex....but I digress...

Much has been said about the darker elements of Peter Pan. I'm a fan of the tv show "Once Upon a Time" who cast him as a pretty sinister villain in one of the seasons. It's not hard to see where these interpretations come from, especially if you know a bit about the author's strange and tragic life. This piece in The Guardian, is a good read for those that are interested in an overview of Barrie's life and a brief look at some of the historical and textual interpretations.

I hesitate though, to be too serious. Peter, I think, would rail against the jaded grown-ups ruining all his games through over analysis. Darkness doesn't have to mean evil, it is simply a natural counterpart to light. 

Childhood is not all fairy dust and mermaids. There are also monsters and ghosts and being afraid of the dark. There is sadness and fear and danger along with all of the joy and wonder, even (often) tragedy. Perhaps that's why Peter Pan is still one of the most recognizable and relatable heros in children's literature. He runs into danger and confronts the darkness, seeks it out even. There is real gore and blood-- no panning away from the camera-- but the graphic scenes are juxtaposed with wild innocence. At the end of the day, everything is a game, even death. 

Peter shows us the great contradiction of childhood-- charming and lovable, but also selfish, shortsighted, and reckless. The story shows us adventure and imagination alongside heartbreak and loneliness, the blow of the later softened by the element of fantasy.

Here is one of the passages that got me, in which we get a glimpse of the humanity of Peter, and not just the myth. Wendy tells the boys a story every night about their own mother so that they do not forget her. Peter hates the story. He groans one night at the telling, and thinking he is hurt Wendy asks if he is okay:
'It isn't that kind of pain,' Peter replied darkly.
'Then what kind is it?' 
'Wendy, you are wrong about mothers.' 
They all gathered round him in affright, so alarming was his agitation; and with a fine candour he told them what he had hitherto concealed. 
'Long ago,' he said, 'I thought like you that my mother would always keep the window open for me; so I stayed away for moons and moons and moons, and then flew back; but the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.'

Indeed, there is a certain tragedy in this whole growing up business. It is a tragedy to grow up, and it is a tragedy not to. It is almost merciful that we do not have a choice in the matter, and so accept it simply as the way things are. Not like Peter, who we can't help but grieve for when we consider all the "what if's", especially as a mother. 

Lessons Rereading Books from my Childhood

On a whim, I started re-reading some of the books I remembered from my childhood. I just finished Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli.

I honestly didn't remember much about the book. I remembered that Maniac was an orphan and homeless, and that he ran...a lot, and I remember the character Mars Bar, but only for his name. That's about it. I remembered almost nothing about the plot. After all these years, what I remember most, is not what happened in the book, but how the book made me feel. I remember sadness and triumph, and that feeling of magic and fulfillment at the last page, when you think, "Yes, this is how the story ends," and yet it doesn't really end, because those feelings stay with you.

It was a joy rereading it as an adult. I could see what fascinated me as a child and also better appreciate and grasp its many redeeming qualities, like the magical realism, the themes of separation and belonging, of race and family, and the subtle but perfect narration.

I was a slow reader as a kid. It wasn't till second grade that my parents and teachers realized I needed glasses because in elementary school they only tested for near-sightedness, and I'm far-sighted. I had trouble looking at a page right in front of me. I would have to close one eye, and use my finger to read the words, because I also had tracking problems (my eyes would skip to the next line before I was finished reading the first.) I remember being frustrated in school, and anxious whenever we had to read something to ourselves in class. I almost never could finish the paragraph or passage within the time the teacher gave us to read it. The pressure of having to read something within a time constraint made me anxious and also embarrassed. I learned how to fake it. I would read the comprehension questions first and then go back and skim through the paragraph just to find the answer. I had to do this, otherwise there was no way I would finish. When we had to read a paragraph in class and then answer questions out loud, I just prayed the teacher wouldn't call on me, as I continued to try and read without her noticing.

But I liked reading for myself. I liked curling up in my room and delving into a story at my own pace. Eventually, armed with my new glasses, I was able to like reading in school too, or at least be able to do it without the anxiety, because the more I read, the faster I got.

All of this is to say, that at seven years old as I squinted to see the chalkboard, I would have never imagined that I would get a degree in English and be working on writing my own books. It's good to look back and see how far we've come. We can't change the past, but we can appreciate it in a new way, just like rereading a childhood book as an adult. It gives me inspiration too,  knowing that even now when I feel stuck or frustrated, I just might not be able to see where I will be ten or twenty years down the road. One day at a time.