LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Five Children and It: An Overlooked Classic

The term classic evokes a certain feeling; it carries with it an air of prestige, as well as a sense of nostalgia. In order to be a classic, a book must be able to stand the test of time. Often, this requires a timeless quality. However, a book can be rooted in its own time but still endure as a classic if it possesses that often intangible “it” factor which captures the heart of the reader. Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It is very distinct, specifically in terms of its setting and time period. The world she creates is incredibly real, with the exception of the mythical Psammead and the wishes it grants. As a result of it’s realistic nature, her world is one that does not transcend borders as well as those explored in other classics. For example, Wonderland and Oz are imaginary places where any child, from anywhere, may imagine themselves exploring. In a world that is entirely imaginary, there are still of course going to be nods to the author’s culture and home, but overall there is a lack of identification with any real place. This makes anything possible; anyone can venture to Wonderland. Not everyone can venture to the sand quarry near their quaint home in the English countryside. The poor, caged-in children of London to whom Nesbit refers in her opening pages are cut off from this specific kind of country living. And while they, of course, can use their imaginations, it can be more difficult to place oneself in a place that is so distinctly real. The reality of it all serves as a barrier, the kind that does not exist in getting to Oz. There are also a number of allusions to the time in which Nesbit was living and writing.  The most common form of transportation was a horse and buggy, people started their mornings using wash basins, and any half decent family had servants to look after their children.  However, its specificity, while perhaps off-putting to some, has not stopped Five Children and It from gaining status as a classic, specifically in England. Yet that popularity did not carry over so much into America.

I had never heard of this book before this class. The only other book on the syllabus which I had never heard of was The Water Babies and, to be honest, I did not find that one to my liking. So I became skeptical of this other unknown “classic.” I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by Five Children and It. Yes, the setting was rather British, and bits of it were a tad dated. I didn’t understand all of the difficulties with the money, knowing nothing about any currency other than that of the good old USA, and I’m sure that there were other bits of the story that went over my head due to differences in cultural capital. But when it comes to the story itself, I was enchanted. The children found a sand fairy, which begrudgingly granted them wishes, and many an adventure ensued. What’s not to like? I feel that the strength of its story and narration eclipse any deficits that may have emerged over the past hundred years.  The fact remains that this book, while a classic in one culture, is very much overlooked in our own. Perhaps its endearing quality didn’t transfer to American audiences, or perhaps the librarians powers of dissuasion really did a number here. But I, for one, really enjoyed this century old book, and would place it on my classics shelf right here in America.

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Peter Pan – More than Just The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow UP

In discussion of Peter Pan, both literary and casual, there is an understandable focus on the themes of youth and a reluctance to reach maturity. Indeed, with Peter himself the quintessential “boy who would not grow up”, it certainly is a message worth exploring, and worthy of its inextricability with the work. However, believe that there are other themes in J.M. Barry’s work that are at times overshadowed by this emphasis on “never growing up”. This inequity of focus has somewhat skewed the message of the books, and, without an examination of possible author intention, there is a great potential for misinterpretation.

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One theme, for example, that I believe to be under-discussed is that of loyalty. Peter has a fierce loyalty to his friends and adopted “family”, and in that way he is made to be more than simply a selfish and immature young man. While Peter is definitely both of these things, one must also consider that he has to a degree been made these things by his circumstance and lack of familial security. These deficits of course mirror Barry’s own life (with specific regard to a feeling of abandonment and neglect by his mother), and run much deeper – and are certainly causational – of a fear of growing older.

Peter Pan also captures those themes of youth as more than simply innocence, but as a curiosity and a fire for life that – according to Barry – are somewhat dimmed upon reaching maturity. Peter is not inclined to stay young in order to eschew responsibility but rather to capture for longer its excitement and wonder. These messages, far from encouraging hedonism or selfishness, merely encourage curiosity and imagination. In a retaliation to the Victorian notion of children as young adults, Barry allows them to have a childhood free of adult anxieties and hang ups.

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Close Reading of a Peter Pan Passage

“‘I think I shall go back to mother,’ he said timidly.

‘Good-bye,’ replied Solomon Caw with a queer look.

But Peter hesitated. ‘Why don’t you go?’ the old one asked politely.

‘I suppose,’ said Peter huskily, ‘I suppose I can still fly?’

You see he had lost faith.

‘Poor little half-and-half!’ said Solomon, who was not really hard-hearted, ‘you will never be able to fly again, not even on windy days. You must live here on the island always.’

‘And never even go to the Kensington Gardens?’ Peter asked tragically.

‘How could you get across?’ said Solomon. He promised very kindly, however, to teach Peter as many of the bird ways as could be learned by one of such an awkward shape.

‘Then I shan’t be exactly a human? Peter asked.

‘No.’

‘Nor exactly a bird?’

‘No.’

‘What shall I be?’

‘You will be a Betwixt-and-Between,’ Solomon said” (16-17).

This passage from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, when analyzed, is found to supply us with a general portrayal of the entire novel. We see a boy named Peter Pan who, at first, longs for his mother, then realizes he can’t ever again fly. We further get a general idea of Barrie’s style of writing — the reader is also addressed directly using the word “you.” Finally, Peter Pan also learns from the very wise bird, Solomon, that he is neither human nor bird, but rather a “Betwixt-and-between.”

Firstly, we see an unsure Peter Pan; a little baby who’s only 1 week old (which is absurd — I shall get into that shortly) and has recently flew away from his mother’s company, already regretting his departure. Indeed, in the passage above, Peter Pan is very willing to go back, if only he was able to fly. Of course, Peter Pan lost faith in his ability to fly so he is never again able to do so. This, of course, is a powerful message that shows the empowerment of self-confidence and how crucial it is to be sure of yourself if you ever wish to conquer and accomplish your aspirations — or even your flaws. This is described earlier in the text just after Peter Pan flew from out his window, “It is wonderful that he could fly without wings, but the place itched tremendously, and–and–perhaps we could all fly if we were as dead-confident-sure of our capacity to do it as was bold Peter Pan that evening” (13). How beautiful is this? To be a child reading this line, the child would be consumed by wonder, amazement, and inspiration. Because I’m grown up and have been told repeatedly by others that I can’t “fly” among other things, the inspirational impact this line has on me is minimized, but I can only imagine its limitless impact on a young, fresh mind.

peter pan flying

Throughout life, more specifically in school, a child — any child — will be faced, one time or another, by people who tell that child that he or she cannot aspire to do certain things or be a certain somebody, and eventually the child will start questioning his or her own abilities, potential, and capacity. This is another reason why the Peter Pan series is such a classic; Peter Pan may be told now, by Solomon, that he will never again fly, but inevitably Peter Pan succeeds at just that and much much more! A book is a collection of mere thin pages and ink imprints, but the worlds that are detailed will take any reader on an incredible adventure that defies all the ifs and buts we are faced with in reality; another reason why fiction writing, in particular children’s literature, is essential to our society.

From this passage, we also get a feel for Barrie’s inclusion of the reader as a character in the story. he does this with the line, “You see he had lost faith,” which tells us directly (evermore emphasizing the importance of faith) and also asserts that this story is for “you,” and that this story was written by many of “you.” As we see in chapter 1, “The Grand Tour of the Gardens,” the narrator/writer of this novel is also a character in the story, “[The Kensington Gardens] are in London, where the King lives, and I used to take David there nearly every day” (3). The use of the personal pronoun, ‘I’, declares substance to the narrator, thus the use of ‘I’ and ‘you’ reenacts a sort of story telling involving a storyteller (I) and its audience (you); a situation where a child feels comfortable and delighted to have, perhaps a parents, sharing to them a story. Barrie further captures the heart and attention of the child reader through his inclusion of David as a character in the story; though, he is the most relatable character because David is also joining in on the listening of the story — Barrie even taking it one step further by having David as an accompanying storyteller in which the story manifests from both the adult narrator’s perspective and that of a child’s (David),

“I ought to mention here that the following is our way with a story: First I tell it to him, and then he tells it to me, the understanding being that it is quite a different story; and then I retell it with his additions, and so we go on until no one could say whether it is more his story or mine” (13).

Mother and Daughter Reading Together

The intended audience being a child reader, thus the inclusion of a child’s voice in helping tell the story gives it more authenticity than most other texts of children’s literature.

Finally, as we see in the passage above, Peter Pan learns from the very wise bird, Solomon, that he is neither human nor bird, but rather a “Betwixt-and-between.” Peter Pan is seemingly incapable of declaring his identity. This absence of identity is discussed in this week’s assigned essay, “The Riddle of His Being: An Exploration of Peter Pan’s Perpetually Altering State,”

“Peter Pan changes shape and position so often that he is uncertain about his identity. Wendy is the first to ask Peter Pan what he is but he cannot answer. His responses to Wendy’s question are vague and abstract” (McGavock).

This brings me back to Peter Pan’s absurd age of only 1 week old. This also brings me to many questions such as: how is Peter Pan so intelligent at so young an age? How is he able to speak nearly perfect English so fluently? How does he know braveness but not fear? Such observations baffle me, and I am forced to categorize such as the work of fiction; not to be questioned. It is believable that because of his young age that he is unable to see himself as human when he was so recently a bird, but these matters of self-identity and self-discovering are usually associated with teens and young adults who are trying to find out who they are (it was only until recently until I discovered such myself!). Poor Peter Pan, I wish him all the best, but for a boy of 1 week old who will never grow up… I pity him; though, I envy all his faith through his adventures — and many at that.

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Classics

In class we talked about if a novel could be considered a classic if there was a popular fan base and the book was enjoyable to read. Many people see The Wizard of Oz like Twilight or Harry Potter even, but I believe we should examine this further. What is a classic anyways? We read novels like Pride and Prejudice, Robinson Crusoe, or David Copperfield and think that because they might be somewhat dry or for an older audience that they embody the qualities that make a classic novel. But I believe that The Wizard of Oz fits into the category.

Even though Baum was ahead of his time with his series by making memorabilia, he is no different than say Jane Austen. She might not have advertised like Baum did, but today her novels are immensely popular, there are hundreds of book clubs and societies in her name; so does this make her work any less credible? Absolutely not. Thus, I believe that Baum’s work in The Wizard of Oz is definitely a classic! When reading the novel, the world created was incredible! He might have drawn from Carroll, but his ideas were inventive. One of the largest characters in the novel, the Wizard, was in fact only a con man tricking the people into thinking he was granting their wishes. I believe that Baum was genius for coming up with a back story like that.

All in all, the novel allows children to explore new worlds and expand their creativity. There is a large following of the book, but it is appropriate because the book deserves recognition. Even though he profited greatly from the novels, he is not unlike many of his predecessors before him who became very wealthy off of their works; and many of those books are considered classics today.

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Thoughts on my paper

In my final paper, I plan to talk about sibling families. The Five Children and It and Peter Pan and Wendy are British Golden Age works that feature groups of siblings going on adventures, rather than a solitary protagonist. I will be including The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis in my discussion. I intend to show that, under the stress of separation and adventure, groups of siblings form a replacement nuclear family structure in the absence of their actual parents. The older siblings will act parental, while the younger siblings will defer to them for protection and love.

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I just finished rereading and marking up The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, which was the book that gave me the thesis idea in the first place. I am pretty pleased with the results:  it appears as if my argument is right on track. The children are traumatically separated from their parents because of the “air-raids” of WWII (1). Though Lewis doesn’t dwell on the separation, Peter and Susan (the older of the four) immediately start directing the family. Peter sets to work cheering them all up, while Susan starts mothering until the ever irritable Edmund snaps at her for “trying to talk like Mother” (2).  The two older siblings direct activities, discipline Edmund, and seek the help of the Professor when they first hear of Lucy’s trip through the wardrobe. Interestingly, when Lucy’s siblings initially don’t believe her stories about Narnia, she grows frustrated and says “…you can write to Mother or you can do anything you like,” yet on the next page Peter muses that if anything is wrong “ [The Professor] will write to Father” (42, 43). Both children choose the parent of the same gender when discussing authority.

When Edmund accidentally goes through the wardrobe and encounters the Witch, she seeks his cooperation by speaking kindly and giving him food, drink and warmth – by taking care of him. She ensures his cooperation by tempting him with enchanted food, but perhaps Edmund is seeking a mother.  Once the four children cross into Narnia together, Peter leads the family, while Susan is constantly looking out for their material needs. It is she who suggests they take the coats from the wardrobe because Narnia is in the throes of winter, who wonders about the safety and availability of food in multiple situations (51, 56, 62). This parental behavior is suddenly scared out of them when they discover Edmund has betrayed them – Peter no longer has any idea what to do, and Susan abandons her concern with the family’s needs. Once they are with Aslan, he takes over the parenting – each sibling has a private moment alone with Aslan, after which they emerge wiser.

However, their actions also seem to be influenced by stereotypical gender roles and primogeniture. When they first meet Aslan, Peter realizes he must lead the family to him because he’s the “eldest” (123). Aslan then takes him off alone to show him “the whole country below them… where you are to be King,” while the girls are left behind (125).

Replace Simba with Peter and you've got it.

Replace Simba with Peter and you’ve got it.

Peter is to be “High King over all the rest” because he is “first-born” (126). Part of Edmund’s evil is that he wants to be more powerful than his siblings, especially “Peter” (85). Aslan specifically says that he does not mean for Susan and Lucy to fight in the battle, despite Lucy’s protestations that she “could be brave enough” because, Aslan says, “battles are ugly when women fight (105). The girls often speak in terms of emotion and feelings, while Peter speaks in logic and “strategems,” which is a very antiquated stereotype of male and female thinking (73).

My issue now is to figure out how to include the issue of age and gender roles. I was initially going to discuss acting parental as a behavior older siblings can choose to adopt when they are upset by the absence of their parents, but now it seems I should be looking into how societal and cultural pressures might be encouraging that behavior. Perhaps Peter and Susan act like parents because they are feeling the pressures of their genders to care for the younger ones and act in a certain gender-specific way, and perhaps Peter is feeling the pressure of being first-born when he chooses to head the siblings. I think I’ll see if I can find some research on gender roles, parenting and sibling-led families (this was common when parents had died) in the time period and see if it helps to clarify my discussion. I also have to keep in mind that this novel was published a later than the other two books in my paper, so I have to look into two different sets of cultural norms.

 

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Peter Pan in Kensingston Gardens is Suitable For Children

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Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is a very well known text that has been successful for over a century. It is a quick, yet enjoyable read for any age group, but I believe its appeal is more skewed toward children around the age of 7 to around the age of 12. It is a text that seems in the perfect position to be read after a child has grasped the fundamentals of reading, and want to adventure out into a book of greater length and plot development. In terms of aspects of the text that make me feel Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is appropriate for children, the very premise that Peter Pan is only seven days old is a big reason. He is not mature, so it seems easy for a child to suspend his or her beliefs and go along with the story.

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Also, there is a complete absence of any sense of sexuality in this story. For example, Peter Pan meets a girl named Maimie Mannering and within a short period of getting to know her, he asks her to marry him. He skips any sense of intimacy, potentially because he lives with an idea of living eternally. He also has a complex that causes him never to have the desire to grow up, and this is a very good indicator as to why he eschews any semblance of affection with Maimie.

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The progression of the plot is very straightforward, and while the language is not the most elementary, it is still able to be interpreted from a young audience. The use of the second person throughout the text is such an effective manner of involving the audience, especially children, because it provides a sense of an invitation to go along the journey with the characters, instead of simply reading about other peoples’ adventures. The use of pictures also contributed to the text to be directed towards children, as a whole. The pictures were very excellent ways to depict the essence of what was being said in the text, in case children had misunderstood or just needed a pictorial schema of what was occurring.

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There’s No Place Like Home

“No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”

This quote from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz reveals on of the major ideals of his novel: the importance of home and family. Although Dorothy’s home setting is gray and dull, what matters most is being in a place of love, warmth, and family. Many people would not like to call Kansas their home. It is a place filled with cyclones, cracked land, and colorless skies. Yet at the same time, it is also an area filled with love, caring, and happiness.

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When Dorothy is transported to the land of Oz, she is immediately amazed by the bright colors, beautiful flowers, and friendly little people. She meets new comrades along the way who provide for and protect her from the various dangers. Although Dorothy makes loyal friends and enjoys the beauty of Oz, she still dearly longs to return home to her family. The beauties and wonders of Oz are not as important to Dorothy as is being back with Aunt Em even though Kansas is gray and colorless.

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Through Dorothy’s desire to return home, Baum teaches readers a very significant lesson – simply being with family and loved ones is more important than materialistic ideas, such as beauty and splendor. Children learn that being in an environment of kindness and concern is what matters most in life. In addition, Baum also incorporates the dangers of a strange land to teach children that what may seem like a better life in a new world may in fact present more dangers and harm. I definitely that Baum’s theme of the importance of home permeates among children. The movie version successfully incorporates this theme. As a young girl, I remember dressing as Dorothy on Halloween and reenacting the clicking of the ruby slippers scene. The phrase, “There’s no place like home,” as stuck with me ever since and I still recognize the significance of my being with my family.

Here is a video of the scene from the movie.

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Motivations in Writing Children’s Literature

The agendas that author’s have when writing their works of fiction are very interesting.  They cover an array of motives and serve a purpose that is ultimately for the author.  The authors may have a strong moral code that they believe all others should also have and so they write stories where one can learn and see how following these morals will lead them to having the best life they can have.  Another motive could be political agendas.  Many texts are written in a time of political turmoil and some authors incorporate this into their works.  Authors also tend to put much of themselves into their stories.  The reasons can vary; perhaps it is a way to immortalize themselves or, a way for them to work through insecurities or problems in their lives.  Most likely, it is a way for the authors to write something that they know personally and feel a connection to.

images    Charles Kingsley inserts his belief in religion and duty within his tale of The Water Babies.  Kingsley was a very religious man and had a set idea about how “good” people lived.  Therefore, he chose to push these beliefs onto others by instructing children how one was meant to behave through his tale of Tom and Ellie.  Even within classic fairy tales there are lessons and morals to be gained from reading these stories.   Do not disobey your husband, marry whomever you are intended to and maybe you will fall in love with him anyway, be a good child and listen to your elders and remain sweet and pure.  These are all lessons, which can be obtained through the readings of fairy tales from all over the world.

Political agendas can be inferred within at least a few of the texts that we have read during this course.  Both Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books and Frank L.  Baum’s The Wizard of Oz have different social and political issues within them. Within Kipling’s books about Mowgli and his animal comrades we see a social hierarchy that is very reflective of British governed India.  Many historians view the Baum’s The Wizard of Oz as a political text.  They have assumed that Baum used very strategically certain characteristics and colors within the novel to represent political America.  For instance, some historian’s have stated that the Cowardly Lion could be the politician William Jennings Bryan who had the reputation of being indecisive.  Others have inferred that the Yellow Brick Road is symbolic of gold and the silver shoes are representative of currency.  images-1

Finally, I would like to visit the concept, which leaves me with the most questions, the motive of putting oneself within one’s own fictional story.  Lewis Carroll inserted himself in both of his Alice tales.  In Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland we see a tale that Lewis wrote entirely for the children he was very fond of from his own life.  Alice Liddell is the Alice whom Carroll both wrote the story and created the character around.  In his follow up, Through the Looking Glass, Carroll inserts himself into the text as The White Knight.  He gives his mannerisms and other qualities to this character.  Carroll is not the only author to do this though and we see a similar story within J.M. Barrie’s stories about Peter Pan.  Much like Carroll, Barrie was also very close to a family with young children that were not his own. Instead of the children being all girls this family was made up of five young boys whom Barrie created his tales for.  He even names his characters within his works after these boys.  Barrie also gives a part of himself to the character of Peter, and put his own dog Porthos within his earlier drafts.

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Though motives may vary it is easy to assume that these author’s felt a need to write about the beliefs, world occurrences, and things going on in their lives.  Especially interesting is that these are texts that are geared for children.  The need to impress morality, hint a political issues, and offer a personal vulnerability that children may not grasp quite fully at first but later in life when they are older and pick back up these classics that is very likely to change.

*Geer, John G.; Rochon, Thomas R. (2004). “William Jennings Bryan on the Yellow Brick Road”. The Journal of American Culture 16 (4): 59–63. doi:10.1111/j.1542-734X.1993.00059.x.

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Betwixt-and-Between: Peter Pan and The Water-Babies

In reading Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, I was reminded of The Water Babies. Solomon tells Peter that he is a “Betwixt-and-Between” (Barrie17) and it seems to me that in The Water-Babies, Tom is equally stuck being not-quite human.

I think the scene that really made the connection for me though, was the scene with the birds in Peter Pan; it reminded me of the Allfowlsness Island Tom encounters on his journey. On an island of birds – each having their own community and way of life – both protagonists find themselves out of place; Tom is looking to continue on his journey to regain his his humanity and Peter is stuck their after losing his ability to fly.

Thanks for rubbing it in.

Thanks for rubbing it in.

 

The islands of birds play different yet similar roles as stop-overs on the protagonists journeys of self-growth and development. For starters, both are sanctuaries from humanity. In Water Babies, the petrels tell Tom never to reveal the island’s location “lest men should go there and shoot the birds, and stuff them, and put them into stupid museums…” (Kingsley, 145). Likewise, in Peter Pan, Solomon’s island in Kensington Gardens is only reachable by air: “for the boats of humans are forbidden to land there, and there are stakes around it, standing up in the water, on each of which a bird sentinel sits by day and night” (Barrie, 16).

Seriously, who's giving me a ride?

Seriously, who’s giving me a ride?

The protagonists, stranded, must find a way off of each island. At these points of their respective stories, the protagonists’ goals are the same; both Tom and Peter are – even if not in the same ways – trying to become real humans again. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately  depending on perspective – only one of the two succeeds in this quest. While Tom regains his humanity and is better of than when he began, Peter is replaced by his family and spends his eternal youth playing in the gardens, perpetually stuck between being an animal and a man.

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Why Peter Pan Fails To Hold Up (in America)

Peter?! I thought you were older…

When the average person thinks of Peter Pan, the story of a boy in green tights flying with a girl and her brothers to a magical locale called Neverland would probably come to mind first. This fantasy is even more apparent in American culture, where Disney granted us a very popular adaptation and other authors continue to explore the origins to or adventures after the Peter and Wendy novel. When it comes to Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the average American probably has little idea of a story of a baby named Peter who explores the magical settings in the United Kingdom. I cannot say how well the book holds up for the rest of the world, but I know that Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens fails to resonate with modern audiences. Although one may argue that this is due to the Peter and Wendy story usurping its popularity, I believe it can actually be attributed to the novel’s narrow scope and dense prose.

Groovy huh?

The novel takes place in the United Kingdom, specifically in London and the Kensington Gardens. The everyday American citizen is probably not familiar with the geography of the UK, which is repeatedly mentioned in the novel. This brings up a number of issues, especially in regard to the fact that the novel is targeted toward children. Since most younger children are not well versed in the geography of their own state and country, it makes sense that the locations mentioned by Barrie would fly right over American children’s heads. The failure to recognize these locales would mean that children would also have difficulty understanding the significance of the locations and thus diminish their enjoyment of the work. Although Barrie is able to eloquently describe the setting and layer it with wonderful imagery, I still think the geographical barrier has persisted as an impediment to the novel’s classic status in America and its inability to appeal to modern children.

Creepy lookin’…

Although J.M. Barrie paints a very appealing picture of Kensington Gardens, his writing style could be another reason why the novel has failed to stand among other works in their universal appeal to children across the generations. His descriptions and second-person narrative are fascinating to analyze as an adult studying the novel, but as a child I could see myself becoming frustrated very early on with the text. This dense prose could be attributed to the fact that he is of Scottish origin and many American children would be unfamiliar with the colloquialisms and slang he uses throughout the novel. While many British authors employ the nuances of their English tactfully within their texts, I think Barrie fails on many levels to appeal to readers outside of Europe. In addition, the meandering sentences of descriptions could also quickly disengage a child from the story. Overall, the combination of lengthy, meandering prose and many references to foreign locations have contributed to the novel’s immense decrease in popularity in America, particularly concerning is classic status.

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