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.