LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Peter Pan Stories: Appropriate for Children Today?

From the Disney adaptation of “Peter Pan”

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and, later, Peter and Wendy both present the well-known tales of Peter Pan, the boy protagonist and hero who never grew up.  His story is arguably one of the most famous of the ones we’ve discussed in the class thus far and has really made a large impact on our society.  These stories were huge successes not only at the time that they were published but perhaps even more so in our contemporary society through several adaptations.  However, as we are well-aware, time changes as well as ideologies and the mainstream society’s views on different things, and it calls to the forefront the question of whether or not this text is still suitable for children today.   I believe that this is a question worth further examining.

I feel that there are many points in the text that are worth questioning, such as Peter’s explicit disregard for reality, the fact that he essentially kidnaps other children from their homes to take them to another land, and the troublesome adventures that often lead the characters to danger and sometimes near-death.  In today’s society, where the protection of children is at the forefront of national media and parents are fearful of letting their children wander outside without supervision, these legal and parental guardians may not want their children learning the stories of other children who were whisked off and away via flight to Neverland, where they could battle pirates and crocodiles with the somewhat poorly influential new boy.   However, with these little concerns put to the side, I think that the bigger picture can be looked at that this is one of the most influential and entertaining stories ever written for children.

This text provides something that many others do not—the glorification of what childhood actually is.  J. M. Barrie suffered from several mental, physical, and emotional hindrances, which led him to live in a childlike state for the entirety of his life.  He wrote these stories as an outlet to provide himself a means of living vicariously through his main character in order to preserve the beauty of childhood.  I think that any reader can find this through his words and learn to love the purity and adventure that comes with childhood.  The Peter Pan stories are essentially a glorification of childhood and the craziness and entertainment that can come with allowing yourself to venture off to a newly created world in your imagination.  I don’t believe that parents should worry as much about their children trying to fly off to other worlds and should instead focus on the building of their children’s imaginations.  Childhood essentially only comes once for us, and we need to relish in it.  I think that these stories really allow us to do so.  While it is probably not suitable to live variously through the characters to the extreme that J. M. Barrie did, I do not believe that there is any harm in allowing any individual of any age in any era to read these stories and be led to their own vision of Neverland for a new and exciting adventure.

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Everyone Grows Up Eventually—Or Do They?

J. M. Barrie is an individual whose childhood did not end with the progression of his age or rather, arguably, ever.  Like the character of Peter Pan, he attempted to live a very whimsical life seemingly unscathed by the harsh realities of the world around him.  He tried to appear as if he was never consumed by many of the qualities of adulthood and viewed many of life’s greatest complexities in the same way that a young child would.  This could explain why his marriage to his wife reportedly persisted unconsummated or why he developed such a strong, playful relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys.  Aside from the belief that Barrie could have written many of his stories for children, I believe that a stronger argument can be made that he was expressing his own inner desires to live the life of Peter Pan in both Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and later Peter and Wendy.  This could explain why the themes of endless childhood and escape persist so strongly throughout his stories.

J. M. Barrie playing “Neverland” with Michael Llewelyn Davies

Barrie’s childhood life could be considered to be extremely traumatic by many.  His brother, David, the favorite of his mother, died at a young age, which reportedly affected him so greatly that he became a victim of psychogenic dwarfism—a disorder which could have accounted for his small stature for the rest of his life.  Barrie reportedly attempted on numerous occasions to fill the void in his mother’s life that was created by David’s death to partial avail.  The theme of being replaced or not truly prized by his mother can be seen in one of Peter’s returns home from Kensington Gardens in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.  However, I believe that the trauma of a life not fully recognized by his mother may have been what was truly too hard to handle perhaps even more so than his own brother’s death.  The character Peter Pan is first introduced as an infant who escapes from his home on an adventure to Kensington Gardens, a place filled with magic and fantasy.  As a reader, I believe that this portrays Barrie’s desire to escape to the Kensington Gardens and, later, Neverland that he described in his books—an opportunity to live a magical and forever-childlike life away from the problems associated with reality.

J. M. Barrie appears to have an obsession with childhood.  Readers can see Peter’s eternal childhood as either a blessing or a curse, but I believe that Barrie truly envied this quality of his most famous creation.  I believe that his inner feelings appear through much of the text, and it seems as if he views childhood and youth as a blessing and the consequential growth into adulthood as a curse.  In Peter and Wendy, Barrie states that Wendy knew she needed to grow up at one point in her life after one of her conversations with her mother and that this realization often comes after the age of two, which he defines as being the beginning of the end.  The claim is true that all children eventually must grow up no matter how hard they try to fight it.  However, J. M. Barrie made an interesting case for the opposition.  With the stature and emotional or even mental capacity of a child, he may have succeeded in temporarily elongating the length of his childhood through the creation of a character and story that he could live vicariously through—the story of Peter Pan.

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Hook: The poor man who can never achieve Form

One of the more interesting parts about Peter and Wendy is Hook’s constant fascination over the concept of “Form.” Throughout Peter and Wendy we see him obsessing over it and, as we discussed in class, the people who worry about form generally don’t have it and those that don’t concern themselves with form attain true grace. However, I would like to further argue that it is physically impossible for Hook to achieve any semblance of true form because of one factor: his deformity, his namesake, his hook, and that this represents for Barrie a method of comparing adulthood with children.

Its a hook

Dun….dun…dun…

Hook, as should be apparent, has lost something that is extraordinarily important to nearly every person: his hand. He is therefore a mangled, deformed human being and, despite being quite deft with his hook, it is no real replacement for the working marvel that is a human hand. Thus, we see that Hook can never truly achieve true, great form for himself because no matter how much he may practice and wax on about great form, he is, in effect, a lesser creature. He is lesser than even the slouching most bestial and uncouth human being, for this human can, at any time, decide to correct his ways and “stand tall.” To bring this to an even more depressing view – Hook, a grown man who cannot stop thinking about his form, cannot maintain a superior form to that of a one-week baby, Peter Pan.

This utterly broken man then must be pitied for he is more of an animal: always gnawing away at some problem that is nearly impossible for him to fix and dies worrying about it. Hook – poor, malformed, missing an essential part of himself that he can never recover – directly corresponds to Barrie’s skewed perspective towards childhood and adulthood. In my interpretation there is no question that Hook, the deformed pirate, comes to represent adulthood for Barrie. I believe that Barrie believes that Adulthood then requires absence – that of some wonderful grace of childhood (form) – and oftentimes is accompanied by constant regret and anxiety  as well as extreme physical changes – the loss of Hook’s hand and puberty respectively- that create a bitter adult who is harassed by childhood (Peter).

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Peter Pan: the Replacement Child

J.M. Barrie and one of the Llewelyn Davies boys

When one reads any Peter Pan works by J.M. Barrie, one may note dark undertones for a tale that is depicted as lighthearted and encouraging of the free spirit. Much of Barrie’s own experiences contributed to the work and it is said this is the reason for any of his works’ peculiarities. Barrie was described as childlike, no taller than 5’4” and almost incapable of real adult relationships. This fixation on childhood may be in part due to the loss of his brother David, who died two days shy of his 14th birthday in an ice skating accident. David was his mother’s favorite child (or so we think), and Barrie spent much of his childhood dressing in David’s clothing and trying to console his mother of her loss. Barrie began to fill the shoes of what is known as a “replacement child.” In most cases, a replacement child is a child born after the death of a sibling, however, when David died, expectations for his life and future fell onto Barrie.

One can draw a few parallels between Peter Pan and David, as Peter does not grow up and David is barred from adulthood in his death. Peter & Wendy opens with the famous line, “Every child grows up, except one.” David, who died at 14, is frozen at that age in childhood. He will never be thought of as a grown man or adult, but forever as an individual untouched by the experiences of adulthood. Many people often ask why or how Peter gains the ability to fly, and one may argue that he is in fact a ghost thus having the ability to fly to “other worlds” such as Neverland. Peter Pan also buries young children in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and leads the lost souls of children in Peter & Wendy. These roles have very much to do with the dead and perhaps Peter performs these duties because he feels partial to dead children, as he is one.

Peter Pan is a mysterious figure in children’s literature that has intrigued and fascinated people always. We all experience a sense of never wanting to grow up and this has allowed Peter to remain such a prevalent character in literature, movies, and other works. Though his origins are unknown, one thing is certain: Peter and his stories are peculiar. Peter Pan works have a few minor creepy details and this may be attributed to Barrie’s childhood experiences especially given the loss of David and having to replace him in order to console his unstable mother.

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Introductory Blog: Catherine Woodcock

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p.s. that’s my dog, Scout!

My name is Catherine Woodcock, I’m a senior here at the University of Florida with a major in Political science and two minors in English and Mass Communication.  I am from Jacksonville, Florida (more specifically Ponte Vedra Beach if you know the area) but I spent half of my life living in England too as my dad and extensive family are British.

I have been an absolutely avid reader since early childhood and have always loved books, a quality that I think is what drew me towards taking this course.  The books I read and loved as a child heavily influence my idea of “children’s literature”. I think this genre, for me, is primarily composed of books that are colorfully written with imaginative stories, poems, and songs that entertain and stimulate the minds of children from ages two to ten.  When I hear the term “children’s literature” I can’t help but to think of that vibrant section of the bookstore with train tracks, carpets, and miniature chairs and tables filled with books of all shapes and sizes.  It conjures in my mind the books that my father read, I read, and the ones that I read to my young cousins today.  I believe that it is a cross-generational and encompassing genre that, to many varying people, reflects many differing personal inclusions and definitions highly subjected to everyone’s individual childhood experiences and memories.

Though it is difficult to choose my favorite childhood text I think I would probably have to choose The Twits by Roald Dahl.  I was devoted to anything Roald Dahl as a kid but this short novel I read countless times and truly adored.

I have never taken a children’s literature class before but I am so excited to start this course to relive and re-examine the enduring works we will be reading this semester.

The term “Golden Age” of children’s literature for me can be described, not fully but to a certain degree, by the word timeless.  They are the books that have done just that, stood the test of time and are, for the most part, staples of the general population’s childhoods across countries as well as generations.  The questions that this term inspires within me surround a growing curiosity I have concerning how we determine the qualifications that make a piece of literature timeless.

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