Growing up with Peter Pan

One of my all-time favorite childhood books is “Peter Pan.” I’ve read it many times, once initially (not including the children’s versions of the book), then again several times late in elementary school. I picked it up again a couple of years later, and finally read it again in my mid-twenties. It’s followed me through life, so I feel like I’m always growing up with Peter Pan.

Every time a show comes on that has to do with this story, I try to find it and watch it. When I was in elementary school, I looked forward every day to watching “Peter Pan and the Pirates.” I’d go to sleep fantasizing about being one of the characters in the show, enjoying their adventures in Neverland. I’ve seen every movie rendition of Peter Pan, including Hook, that I can find. My kids watched Jake and the Neverland Pirates. I’ve read a Peter Pan prequel, “Peter and the Starcatchers” by my favorite humor columnist, Dave Barry, and Ridley Pearson. The “Once Upon a Time” Peter Pan story arc pursued a creepy yet satisfying and compelling take on the story. I feel like I’m due to read “Peter Pan” again, but this time, I’ll be reading it aloud to my children.

Growing up with Peter Pan - Happy Halloween 2021
Happy Halloween! Here’s D as Peter Pan (in a costume his sister has also worn and loved) with T as Jasmine.

It’s a book that has grown with me, one that has taught me a lot about growing up. The whimsy of it all always appeals to me—the dog who is also a nanny, the mother worried about leaving her children without a nightlight, and the fact that Peter lost his shadow. There’s also a Mary Poppins storyline about shadows. The friendliness of the shadows they describe in both these books helped dispel my childhood fears of the dark.

But back to Peter Pan. I used to always sympathize with Peter. I wondered why Wendy always wanted to leave Neverland, always wanted to go home, always played the role of mother to the other Lost Boys. In all fairness, I too always wanted to be a mother, but I still felt like Peter had it better. He could fly—what is cooler than that? And don’t forget the mermaids, fairies, and pirates.

I waited eagerly for D’s first true laugh, to hear the birth of his fairy. With T, I caught it and knew when it happened. I do believe and encourage the same to my children. It’s a sad world indeed when we can’t believe in beautiful things despite the ugliness around us. There’s death, sickness, war, terrorism—but we fail to appreciate how fairies represent hope.

This book always makes me cry, especially at the end when you find Wendy an old woman, and Peter still a boy enticing her descendants off to Neverland.

It always broke my heart. She waited for him, wished he would come for her—even on her wedding day!—and then was ultimately disappointed. Wendy set aside her childhood dreams to grow up. Her first love didn’t return her feelings the way she hoped he might.

After all, he did effect her rescue from the Jolly Roger. But he also saved Tiger Lily and chose to have many a grand adventure with some very unlikeable mermaids. He never seemed eager to play Father to Wendy’s Mother. So I recently realized that Peter didn’t feel the same way about Wendy as she did about him.

Literally growing up with Peter Pan

The theme in the book of time passing (unavoidably, mind you) is shown too in Captain Hook and his fear of the crocodile who has swallowed the ticking clock.

And nowhere has that been more impactful than in my own reactions to this amazing book. The last time I read it, I was struck by how very childish and petulant Peter appeared. I totally shifted my sympathies from Peter to Wendy. I connected with all the choices she made and agreed with all of them. Despite her regrets, I saw that she opted to have a full life, not the half-life of a forever child. Now my greatest fear is that I’ll pick up this beloved book again and sympathize with Captain Hook to the dismay of all the other characters.

I have wondered too about people who don’t “get” this book, who don’t recognize its magic and its amazing growth. The book’s staying power has been getting to read it so many times as I’ve grown up. My reaction to the book changes with every read, which has not proven true for some of my other classic childhood favorites. These include Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Anne of Green Gables, any Jane Austen novel, or Little Women. My feelings about the characters in those books never really changed … well, except for Jo. Now, don’t get me wrong, I happily pick up Little Women to reread the series, crying at all the right parts.

Something about Peter Pan changes for me each time I read it. Truly, growing up with Peter Pan has shown me the book’s real magic, the magic of the written word.

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