Monday, August 24, 2009

I Don't Want to Grow Up

As a children's book writer, I would think it nearly impossible not to be at least somewhat intrigued by Peter Pan. The essence of Peter's never wanting to be a grown-up is essentially the same affliction that leads one to want to make up stories about pirates and ninja rabbits and girls that are one whole half cat . . or maybe that's just me. But regardless, the idea is that children's stories help us feel young and that's why adults love them almost as much as kids do.

When I was in London, I picked up a first edition of Peter Pan and Wendy. I was drawn to it by the great Mabel Attwell illustrations that are very much inspired by Kate Greenaway (one of my favorite illustrators). I was also fascinated that this was an abridged and newly written version of the story for younger readers because one thing about old children's books that a modern day children's writer notices is the complexity of the language. I'm not suggesting children can't digest complicated language (Dear Kids, I know you're smarter than most people think), but I do think there's something to be said for the directness and kid-friendly language of today's children's books. Personally, I love to play with language in my children's books. My Pirate School books use a lot of inventive language and CatKid sometimes goes wild with her talking. But the complexities are ones that would be of interest to kids whereas in Victorian literature, the books are often clearly an adult speaking to a child reader, not with them. 

Well, I recently read this edition of Peter Pan and loved it. I was completely shocked to find it read very much like a chapter book that would be published today. Of course, there are a lot of things that would never fly today too . . stabbings, murder, smoking, etc. It was refreshing to see some of that in a book, because I do think if they are depicted in the way they are in Peter Pan, it can be fun and harmless. I'm certainly not advocating any of these things, but I do think it's odd how we cut all of these type of things from books, but not children's television or movies or video games. 

One thing that did surprise me was that I didn't remember how flat the characters were. They are all very one dimensional. It works for the story, but it would be hard to imagine an editor today letting that slide. Also, I guess I didn't realize how troubled Peter's character really is. On top of that, he's rude, snotty, immature, selfish, vain, and basically a brat. He's still lovable in his own way. And admirable in his determination to stay young and free. But still, I thought it was kind of curious and made me wonder about J.M. Barrie's view of childhood and children. It's especially odd given that it was written for a real boy named Peter. If I were the real Peter, I wouldn't have been flattered by this obnoxious portrayal. In comparison, Alice was written for a real girl named Alice and she was portrayed as the most intelligent and reasonable character in the story. She must have been thrilled. 

Back to the heart of the tale, the idea of never wanting to grow up is such an appealing one. I often wonder why it is that as adults we sometimes have that wish, but as children we can't wait to grow up and want to grow up faster and faster and faster. It's an idea that I've played with a lot in my books. It's all throughout Perfect World and Thief. It's a major part of the book I'm currently working on. I think it's a concept that we are most conflicted on in our teenage years when we're in-between the two and feel them both pulling at us. There's resistance to growing up in there, but it's the quiet side, the shunned side. I personally believe it shouldn't be. We'd all do a little better by the world if we behaved childish every now and then. 

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