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.


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:

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

Favorites Friday: Male Characters

First, a bit of business: I’m going to be heading to D.C. next week (thanks to everyone who gave book suggestions!)  I scheduled posts ahead, so you shouldn’t see any drop in content.  But I won’t have internet access, so don’t be offended if I’m not responding to comments!  I’ll read them all when I get back.  🙂  Now, to today’s post…

Two weeks ago I shared five of my favorite female characters, so obviously that must mean that today it’s time for the other half of the population to have their turn.  In no particular order, a few favorite male book characters. Continue reading “Favorites Friday: Male Characters”

Favorites Friday: British Children’s Fantasy Classics

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 that 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, among others
  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!