LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

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.


Paper Thoughts: Arthur Rackham and Children’s Book Illustration

rackham1For my final paper I am focusing, unsurprisingly, on children’s book illustration. More specifically, I am planning to write about Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), a prolific early-twentieth century British illustrator. While Rackham illustrated a vast number of books, I intend to focus on his illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and examine how these illustrations are representative of major themes in children’s book illustration during the Golden Age. (I realize that this is still somewhat vague, most of my research so far has been limited to biographical information while I wait for a couple of books on the history of children’s book illustration to arrive.)

Rackham was commissioned to illustrate Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in 1905, completing fifty full-page color illustrations for the text. His illustrations were praised by both Barrie and critics, and the book was the most popular gift-book for Christmas in 1906. Rackham’s Alice in Wonderland, published in time for Christmas in 1907 after the book’s original copyright expired, was one of the first re-illustrated versions to be released since the publication of the original with John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations. Interestingly, several other re-illustrated versions were released at the same time, but Rackham’s was the only to endure.

rackham5One specific area that interests me is the production and reception of deluxe limited editions of illustrated books during this period. Many of Rackham’s books were published in these sorts of editions and were extremely popular as Christmas gifts, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph. However, I am finding in my research that such lavish editions, while popular, also attracted criticism when it came to children’s books. For example, the illustrations for Peter Pan were printed, as was customary, on thick paper and protected by tissue fly-leaves (some of the books that we looked at on our visit to the Baldwin were printed in this manner). Critics attacked this practice, however, claiming that such fine books were more suited for “the drawing-room rather than the nursery” (Hudson 66). They argue that in creating such luxurious editions, the books were turned into art objects more easily admired by adults than enjoyed and used by children. I plan to try and locate the full original responses by critics that are cited in the books I have read, and I hope to further explore this debate and its implications for Rackham’s work and Golden Age children’s illustration.

A gallery of Rackham’s Peter Pan illustrations can be found here.
A Rackham edition of Alice in Wonderland can be viewed here.

Hamilton, James. Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration. London: Pavilion, 1990.
Hudson, Derek. Arthur Rackham: His Life and Work. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960.

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Peter Pan in Kensingston Gardens is Suitable For Children


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.


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.


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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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.


There’s a New Crib in Town

In the chapter of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens entitled “Lock-Out Time,”  Peter Pan remembers that once upon a time he had a mother who loved him very much, and he longs to go back to her.  But when he finally makes the decision to return to his mother forever and be “her boy,” it is too late; she has moved on and replaced him with another child.  Peter is devastated, and returns to his new home in Kensington Gardens, where he is happy, but forever haunted by the experience of being replaced.  During his encounter with Maimie, Peter feels guilty when asking her to stay with him in the gardens forever because she thinks she will be able to go back to her mother whenever she pleases and her mother will be waiting there for her, but Peter is finally forced to admit that, in his experience, this is not the case.  Maimie, terrified that her mother has already found a replacement for her, hurriedly leaves the gardens and Peter behind, in order to avoid the trauma of Peter’s life.
Although the extent to which Peter Pan is replaced is not experienced by most children and Maimie’s fears of immediate replacement are a bit irrational, the narrator acknowledges that many of us are familiar with the unsettling experience of a new addition to the family.  In the story, this is explained as “in fairy families, the youngest is always chief person, and usually becomes a prince or princess; and children remember this, and think it must be so among humans also, and that is why they are often made uneasy when they come upon their mother furtively putting new frills on the bassinet” (Barrie 33).  Children like to be special.  They like to be the center of attention, and enjoy being a novelty.  When their position is threatened, kids tend to get nervous.
This theme, or fact of life, has been taken on by many writers since Barrie.  Many modern books for young children take on this conundrum in a very straightforward, didactic manner, such as in Stan and Jan Berenstain’s The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby, one of many in the popular Berenstain Bears series.  Marc Brown’s Arthur the Aardvark, another popular children’s book character, also goes through this life adjustment in Arthur’s Baby.  In both of these books, the only child, who is soon to become a big brother, becomes both inquisitive and apprehensive about the arrival of their new baby sister.  In the end, however, this authors assuage the child’s fears and present the addition of the new baby as a new and exciting thing.

It’s not just young children who have to adjust to a new baby in the family.  In today’s culture, many parents have to deal with their pets’ reactions to tiny humans.  Walt Disney explored this idea in the feature film, Lady and the Tramp. When Lady, a spoiled cocker spaniel, learns that her masters are expecting a baby, she’s curious, but excited.  However, her other dog pals expose her to what a new baby will really mean- she’ll be chained out in the yard for the rest of her days, with no more naps by the fire and no more curling up at the foot of the bed.  (See video below)

As popular culture testifies, the addition of a new baby to the family is a timeless issue, which generation after generation of children (and pets) must come to terms with.


Peter Pan in Popular Culture: An Icon for Children and Adults

Though many children and adults may not be familiar with the exact story Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, most are definitely aware of the character of Peter Pan. Regardless of what inspired J. M. Barrie to create this ageless boy, it is clear that Peter Pan has become a popular figure worldwide.

However, a comparison between how the original character is described with how he is depicted in popular culture today suggests that Peter Pan has taken a completely different role in modern society. Barrie writes that the original Peter “escaped from being a human when he was seven days old” and that the reason he stopped being able to fly was because “he had lost faith.”  This is quite different from modern depictions of Peter Pan, who is famously seen in the 1953 Disney movie Peter Pan as forever twelve, wearing the hallmark green outfit, and being able to fly thanks to his trusty fairy sidekick, Tinkerbell. Though these are considerable differences, the real question to answer is how Disney’s Peter Pan has become a completely different character with different meanings in modern society.


Though the increased popularity of the Peter Pan clad in green may be attributed to the availability and novelty of the animated film, I believe that his role as an icon can be credited to several other factors. The infant Peter Pan in Barrie’s novel was a realistic portrayal of the devilish side of children that the Victorian era denied. Being a rough and rowdy boy with the only intention of playing, having fun, and staying young forever was a testament to how real young boys acted. However, the Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens can be most favorably directed to exact that: young boys.

The modern day idea of Peter Pan taken from popular culture’s Disney film encompasses a much broader audience with present day themes. Specifically, both children and adults, male and female, find themselves associating with this Peter Pan icon. First of all, most can agree that it is easier to relate to a twelve year old on the brink of puberty than an infant of seven days. Second, he is actively portrayed as a lovable boy and a symbol of the younger years where adult responsibilities had not yet taken over. He is used as an icon of the freedom of childhood, and even commercialized for children. This can be seen in the popular brand of peanut butter named after this character. Furthermore, while Barrie’s original story contains themes of gender roles, popular culture expresses the character of Peter Pan with more acceptance to all children. These features are what make the modern character of Peter Pan more available to everyone, and also the icon of childhood.


Altogether, Barrie’s character Peter Pan has become an icon of childhood in the modern day. His portrayal is often linked to freedom, fun, and a nostalgic glimpse of childhood but is definitely remembered for these positive elements and not for the truth behind Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens where Peter would have liked to become a real boy again but was replaced and so was exiled to childhood forever. While some could argue if the modern day Peter Pan icon is a sign of disrespect to the author, the only concrete truth is that Peter Pan is kept alive in the minds of young and old as the boy who will never grow up.


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