Writing Wednesday: Falling into Neverland

I recently took a trip to London, my favorite city.  There are endless literary connections (and I made some connections to the recently-read London) but the most prevalent one for me is always Peter Pan–or more precisely, it’s prequel, The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens.  I wanted a writing project while I was traveling (because I write every day!) so the natural one to work on was a Peter Pan-related short story I’ve had in mind.

One of my writer friends invited me to contribute to a planned anthology of short stories, all based around a central concept–bookshops where people can actually enter into the books they open.  Each short story will focus on a different character entering a different book.  Peter Pan is in the public domain (mostly–it’s complicated) opening it up for this sort of story.

So I did my daily writing on vacation by working on the story of Will, who found himself falling into Peter Pan…literally!  Here’s an excerpt.

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Will took the book into his hands.  It felt oddly warm, but not in a bad way.  It was a friendly sort of feeling.  He meant to open the book to the first page, but the pages seemed to twist within his fingers, and he opened instead to perhaps a quarter of the way through.

He had just read, “When playing Follow my Leader, Peter would fly close to the water and touch each shark’s tail in passing, just as in the street you may run your finger along an iron railing” when the bookshop—and rather importantly, the floor—dissolved around him.

Continue reading “Writing Wednesday: Falling into Neverland”

Top Ten Tuesdays: Books Requiring Tissues

toptentuesdayHosted by The Broke and the Bookish, this week’s topic is: Ten (Eight) Books That Will Make You Cry

I didn’t make it to ten on this one, because mostly I like books that make me happy…but I did manage to come up with a handful of beautifully tragic ones!

1) Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – Life is just so hard for everyone.  You’ve heard “I Dreamed a Dream,” right?  Then there’s the entire last 30 pages where I just want to weep over Jean Valjean and his wretched stubbornness about self-denial.  And, and, and…Gavroche, and Eponine, and Enjolras, and M. Mabeuf, who grows poorer and poorer and finally sells his last book.  Not quite on the level of Fantine, of course, but book-lovers will understand!

2) The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux – For most of this book, the Phantom is a straight-out monster, simple and unlikable.  Then Leroux finishes with a tragic scene of the Phantom talking about how he felt when he let Christine go…and I have to conclude that Leroux meant us to pity the Phantom after all.

3) The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo – You know that nice happy ending spin that Disney puts on it?  Yeah.  That doesn’t happen.

4) The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne – This one is sad in a very different way.  In the last chapter, Christopher Robin comes to tell the animals that he’s going away (to school, I assume), and he won’t be able to come play with them anymore.  He tells Winnie the Pooh to go out to the Enchanted Place sometimes and remember him, and he’ll be there really.  And it’s just heart-breaking…even though everybody does have to grow up, of course.  Which brings me to the next book…

5) Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie – The end of the story gives us a brief account of the Lost Boys when they became adults.  It begins with the sentence “All the boys were grown up and done for by this time; so it is scarcely worth while saying anything more about them” and concludes with “The bearded man who doesn’t know any story to tell his children was once John.”  Christopher Robin’s growing up feels like the natural sadness of something inevitable; this feels like a very morbid view on the whole thing, which mostly makes me sad for J. M. Barrie, if this was really his feelings on what it meant to grow up.

6) The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein – Another kids’ book with a tragic air.  Between the poor, self-sacrificing tree, to the boy who keeps taking and taking and taking and finally winds up as a sad old man with an empty life…  I’m not even sure what the message here is supposed to be, other than that life is hard and also, we’re destroying the environment.

7) The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean – This one only half counts, since the book doesn’t actually make me terribly sad at any point.  But–because of this book, the sentence “I am just going outside and may be some time” puts a (mostly metaphorical) lump in my throat every time I think of it.

8) Phantom: The Story of His Life by Susan Kay – This is sort of the same as #2, but not!  It’s the story from birth to death of the Phantom of the Opera, and there are different emotional moments than Leroux provided.  Erik’s childhood is so sad (first his mother refuses to kiss him on his fifth birthday, and then his beloved dog dies…)  The part that always gets me, though?  Erik is trying so hard to be hopeful about Christine, and the only prayer he can come up with is an echo from childhood: Please, God, let her love me and I’ll be good forever.  Which is heartbreaking enough, but then he decides to go up to the Opera’s roof to pray, thinking God will hear him better from there.  And Christine and Raoul are also on the roof, and…  Well.  I’m very, very sad for him.

Are we all reaching for tissues by now?  Perhaps I should send you to some funny Discworld moments!  Or leave a comment and share about your favorite, beautiful sad books.

Classic Favorites Friday: British Children’s Fantasy Classics

This week I thought I’d re-post one of my earliest “Favorites Friday” posts (creating a “Classic” about Classics), because…it bears repeating, and I feel like I have more-recently-joined readers who might have good suggestions for what else could be on this list!

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I think there was something in the water in Great Britain near the beginning of the last century.  Fairy dust, perhaps, because that’s when so many of the great classic children’s fantasy books were written.  There’s something about them–a style, a flavor, a spark–that marks them out as part of a very special group.

I doubt many titles or authors on this list are new to you (they are, after all, classics!) but still, here’s my list of favorite writers of British children’s fantasy classics, noting their most famous books.  Some books are earlier and some are later, but all have that particular flavor.

In no particular order:

  1. P. L. Travers – Mary Poppins series
  2. Edith Nesbit – Five Children and It
  3. J. M. Barrie – Peter Pan
  4. Frances Hodgson Burnett – A Little Princess and The Secret Garden
  5. Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
  6. Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows
  7. Charles Kingsley – The Water Babies
  8. George MacDonald – The Princess and the Goblin and The Light Princess
  9. A. A. Milne – Winnie the Pooh

And #10, Honorary Mention, is L. Frank Baum, who wrote the Oz series (and many others that are just as good).  He was American, not British, but somehow contrived to write books with that same magical flavor.

There must be classics I’m missing–what are some of your favorites?  And are they sprinkled with the same fairy dust?  🙂 I hope so–I’d love to find more!

Rambling Philosophy About Coming of Age

As another companion piece to The Graveyard Book read-along, this week we’re writing about coming of age stories.

I have to admit, I had some initial tripping-up with this topic.  But I think I’ve got my train of thought sorted out–we’ll see as I type!

When I first heard “coming of age stories” as a topic, my brain perversely went to Peter Pan–who is the complete opposite.  He’s the character who flatly refuses to come of age, ever.  However, I do think that’s one part of the story, as it leads me to the question: why does Peter choose not to grow up?

So I turn the pages to the section of the book when Wendy tries to coax Peter to stay in London with her, and I find that he balks because she would send him to school and then to an office and soon he’d be a man, to paraphrase slightly.  Well, if being a grown-up just means going to an office, by all means, fly back to Neverland, Peter!  That’s what it seems to mean for the other boys; we hear about them as adults, and the saddest is John, the bearded man who doesn’t know any stories to tell his children.  It all rather makes me wonder about J. M. Barrie’s life.

To turn this back around again, I think a key part of growing up is realizing that there’s more to being a grown-up than going to an office!  Peter wants to “always be a little boy and to have fun,” but grown-ups can have fun too.  Different fun.  It’s worth remembering, because when life does seem to revolve around going to an office (or any other humdrum parts of grown-up life, like washing dishes and paying bills), it’s easy to start thinking Peter was right.

But he wasn’t.  And he was also wrong that grown-ups can’t go to Neverland–in a metaphorical sense, of course.

To move along in that direction, let’s look at another classic children’s writer, who seemed to have a healthier view on things.  First, I quote St. Paul, who said something to the effect of, “When I became a man, I set aside the things of childhood.”  C. S. Lewis followed that up with, “And one of the things of childhood I set aside was the fear of being thought childish.”

I remember that there was a point in my life when I came to a revelation that I didn’t have to stop reading children’s books.  And that I can still go to Disneyland and ride the Peter Pan ride.  Of course, now I also have a quite different appreciation for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and I read books from the grown-ups section too.  But I don’t have to let go of all those children’s things if they still appeal to me.  Neverland might look different to us, but we can still get there.

Or to put it another way, growing up means a bigger library to choose from.

This puts me in mind of what actually is an example of a coming-of-age story, my much-beloved and frequently-referenced The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean.  Spoilers here, so you may want to drop down a paragraph.  For new readers, The White Darkness is about Sym, a fourteen-year-old girl who creates an imaginary friend out of Lawrence “Titus” Oates, the Antarctic explorer.  She gains confidence and self-understanding through a really awful experience in Antarctica.  You could say she grows up.  In the course of that, a couple of times I was afraid she was going to have to give up Titus, as part of growing up–but she never does.  And that makes me immensely happy, possibly because of all those things I was discussing above.

On a side-note, since I brought up the book–I also have to say that I was very sad recently to hear about the death of Richard Morant, the inspiration and audiobook-voice of Titus.  I don’t actually believe in ghosts and I certainly don’t want to confuse the actor and the character…but all the same, I like musing over the idea that maybe he’s off being a supportive shoulder to some girl in great need of a friend.

Back to the topic: another coming-of-age story that comes to mind is, oddly enough, The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig, who would probably be taken-aback to hear her story described that way.  It deals with two adults, Arabella and Turnip (don’t ask about the name), who fall in love while trying to untangle a spy ring.  And you ask how this relates.  But it does, more obviously for Arabella, but really both of them.  Arabella starts out as a shy, mousy wallflower, who finds herself as a strong, capable woman.  Turnip shows up in earlier books in the series, always as the buffoon everyone treats as comical and then disregards.  He stays comical, but he also emerges as having much more worth than it previously appeared.

Which brings me to what I think will be my final point–that coming-of-age stories don’t necessarily have all that much to do with age.  Or if they absolutely must, then I seem to be talking about a different sort of story, though a related one.  I think what it’s really about is figuring out who you want to be.  Not who the world says you are, or who you are when you’re afraid to be something else, but who you want to be.  Often that happens at a certain age–but not necessarily–and to some extent it never really stops happening.

To circle back around to the beginning (because he wouldn’t like dropping out of the post), perhaps that’s another reason there could never be a coming-of-age story about Peter Pan.  He is who he wants to be.  He’s the little boy endlessly having fun.

For the rest of us, who follow Sym and Arabella and Turnip to “come of age,” I think it’s worth listening to C. S. Lewis, and to keep in touch with the Peter Pan and the Titus Oates in us all.

Classic Review: The Little White Bird

A quick update today, to say that I just got back from my trip to London and Paris.  I scheduled posts ahead, but if you noticed a distinct silence in the comments, that was why.  The trip was amazing 🙂 and you will be hearing (and seeing) more about it soon!  While I’m getting back on top of things, I have another classic review today, very relevant to my recent trip.

My hotel in London was near Kensington Gardens for a variety of reasons.  It really was a practical choice.  But I also stayed in that part of town because of J. M. Barrie.  The author of Peter Pan, he lived near Kensington Gardens, where he met the Davies boys, the real life inspirations for Peter.  He wrote another book inspired by the Davies, featuring Peter in a cameo.  It’s really that book, The Little White Bird, that’s given me my fascination with Kensington Gardens.

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It really all began in the The Little White Bird.  It’s very possibly my favorite J. M. Barrie book, even over and above Peter Pan.

The Little White Bird; or Adventures in Kensington Gardens is a tale about a man who befriends a little boy, and has adventures with him in London and Kensington Gardens.  If you’re not already suspecting the autobiographical nature of this novel, the little boy’s name is David.  Historically, J. M. Barrie befriended the Davies brothers in Kensington Gardens.  Not too subtle!  He also has a dog named Porthos, as did Mr. Barrie.  The man in the story is left unnamed.  He’s referred to as Captain W–.  I somehow picked up the habit of calling him the kindly old gentleman.

A review in The Times said of the book when it was first published, “The peculiar quality of The Little White Bird…is it’s J.-M.-Barrie-ness…whimsical, sentimental, profound, ridiculous Barrie-ness…Mr. Barrie has given us the best of himself, and we can think of no higher praise.”

I couldn’t put it better.  The Barrie-ness is often the best part of Mr. Barrie’s books.  The charm, the whimsy, the flights of fancy, the sweet sadness…the book is funny and tragic, absurd and heartbreaking, and sometimes all at the same time.  The tragedy, for the kindly old gentleman at least, is that David doesn’t really belong to him, and will one day grow up and leave him.

And there we come to the Peter Pan connection.  Besides thematic connections, there are also four chapters in the middle of the book that are about Peter.  They’re almost oddly unrelated to the rest, other than by geography, but I think they’re meant to be stories that the kindly old gentleman tells David.  In Peter Pan, Peter tells Wendy, “I want always to be a little boy and to have fun.  So I ran away to Kensington Gardens and lived a long, long time with the fairies.”  And this is that story.

We read about Peter’s running away from home, find out why he doesn’t grow up, see him meet the fairies, and also meet a girl he knew long before there was Wendy.  This is before Peter went to Neverland (although an island features) and the Lost Boys and Tinkerbell are yet to come on the scene, but there are other wonderful magical creatures and adventures.  The four chapters about Peter, along with one chapter giving a Grand Tour of the gardens, have been excerpted and published as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with lovely illustrations by Arthur Rackham.

The Baby’s Walk

The Grand Tour (and map) is especially wonderful, because if you’re ever in London, I highly recommend spending an afternoon in Kensington Gardens with The Little White Bird in one hand.  It’s what I’ve done, and I spent a couple of hours going, “Oh, there’s Mabel Gray’s gate!  And the Round Pond!  And that must be the Baby Walk!  And this is probably the weeping beech where Peter sat!”  Even a century later, I was able to find almost everything J. M. Barrie described.  And it’s a little easier to get to Kensington Gardens than to figure out which star is the second one to the right.

One more note on The Little White Bird–George Davies, who was the chief inspiration for David, took a copy of the book with him to the trenches in World War I.  I think that’s one of the saddest and sweetest things I ever heard.

Even in much less dire reading circumstances, it’s a lovely and enjoyable book–and, of course, magical too.

Saturday Snapshot: Visiting Book Characters

I’ve mentioned before that I love visiting places that figure in books, and I’ve been lucky to do that fairly often.  Once in a great while, I get to visit a character from a book–sort of!

These are the original Winnie-the-Pooh characters, the dolls owned by Christopher Robin Milne, A. A. Milne’s son.  Rabbit and Owl were slightly more imaginary, and Roo was lost in an apple orchard around 1925, but you can go visit Kanga, Tigger, Edward Bear, Piglet and Eeyore at the New York Public Library.  There’s a lovely display in the children’s section.  You can’t see it in this picture, but Eeyore’s tail really is held on with a tack!

This is the Peter Pan Statue in Kensington Gardens, which is where Peter ran away to when he left home.  I don’t actually know those two little girls, but they happened to be there when I snapped the picture and I liked how it came out.  And I’m fascinated by the base of the statue–I see something new in it every time I look at it.

There aren’t very many bookish characters available to be visited…but at least there are plenty more bookish places I still want to go…

See more Saturday Snapshots on At Home with Books!

Off to Neverland, with Fairies

Long-time readers know that Peter Pan is one of my favorite books.  You might also know that I often have trouble with new writers telling stories about beloved characters.  So Gail Carson Levine’s Fairies series is a slightly dicey situation, with one of my favorite authors writing based on one of my favorite books.  If it had gone bad, it all would have been immensely sad.

So it’s a good thing that it’s a good series!  It’s very much a kids book, but it’s a sweet read.  I just read the last book as part of my challenge to complete more series.  This one is basically a stand-alone, so you could choose to start here if you like.  I started this series so long ago (2006!) that I don’t even remember my thoughts when I began, if I was worried about whether it would work.  But I remember I liked the first two books, and I can talk about why I think they do work.

As you might have already surmised, the series is not so much about Peter as it is about Tinkerbell, and a host of other fairies who live in Neverland.  Shifting the focus makes it easier for a new author to step in.  Barrie only gave us a few hints and glimmers (or should I say flashing lights?) about fairies, so Levine can build up a more complex world without contradicting what came before.  In the first two books, Peter Pan himself is just referenced, and he’s only a supporting character in this third one.

The first two books introduce us to Levine’s Tinkerbell, an emotional but well-meaning fairy who loves to tinker with metal objects.  It’s not the image people usually have of elegant Tinkerbell–but it’s exactly what Barrie said about her, and explains her name.  We also meet other fairies, like Rani, who loves water, and Vidia, a nasty fairy who loves to fly fast.

Knowing the characters would certainly provide more context for book number three, Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, but you could start here because the book really focuses on Gwendolyn, a descendent of Wendy, whose female ancestors have been flying off to Neverland with Peter ever since.  Gwendolyn can’t wait for her turn, especially when Wendy’s “kiss” (the acorn a confused Peter gave her) gives her tantalizing visions of the island.  Peter does eventually arrive, and when she gets to Neverland Gwendolyn rushes off to look for fairies.

That’s both the strength and the weakness of the book.  Gwendolyn gets to meet all the fairies, and their guardian, Mother Dove.  It’s lovely to find out about society in Fairy Haven, and to watch Gwendolyn learn what her own talent is as she struggles to be accepted by the fairies, and then to help them when a terrifying dragon is accidentally released.  It’s a sweet story, exciting in spots, rather cute throughout.

My trouble, actually, is Peter.  As long as he wasn’t in it at all (or just in a passing reference), I didn’t miss him–so the first two books were fine in that way.  But when he’s in it a bit, suddenly it bothers me that Gwendolyn seems to have no interest in him at all.  Likewise, Peter has very little interest in Gwendolyn (and keeps calling her Wendy).  Peter’s arrogance and forgetfulness are very well-established so I don’t fault the character portrayal.  But the magic of Peter appearing at the window to take someone to Neverland…well, part of it is a Cinderella story, that the special person sees you and chooses you and says that you’re special too.  Peter didn’t seem to think Gwendolyn was special at all.  I guess that’s all right, since what she really wanted was for Tink to think she’s special…but I think Peter’s special so it bothered me!

But that was mostly a side issue, a kind of absence of something that I thought should be there.  What actually was there was good.  It’s not Barrie’s Neverland–it’s a bit homier and a bit more practical.  But it’s not painfully not Barrie’s Neverland either.  And to be fair, the cover says it’s about “Disney Fairies,” so I suppose it doesn’t have to be based on Barrie at all, when it’s really coming from another source material.  With that in mind, Levine has actually written something that’s impressively accurate to Barrie, when she probably didn’t need to be at all.

I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the illustrations.  David Christiana did the illustrations for the entire series and they are absolutely beautiful.  There are many full-page illustrations (or two-page, and even one fold-out!) and they add a wonderful dimension to the story.  I like the book, but it’s actually the illustrations that are making me tempted to buy it!

This isn’t one of my favorite Levine books, but it is a fun look at Neverland from a different angle (even if sometimes a little TOO much that angle!)  This is a simple, sweet, fast read–I’m glad I finished the series, because it was a lovely book and when I did finally read it, it only took me a day!

Author’s Site: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/

Other reviews:
Reading All Year Long
Shannon Messenger
Confessions of a Book Habitue
Yours?