We love hearing from our readers! Ask-a-Librarian is an occasional feature in which we answer a reader’s email query.
There are plenty of books we have read but not managed to review here, so I’m glad Tamra submitted this question:
“I am looking for your review on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan book. We’ve started it with our 3, 5 & 6 year olds. They are currently flying over Neverland and I’m curious if Tinkerbell’s foul language (*ss) and unkind treatment of Wendy due to jealousy of Peter will continue throughout the story.”
Peter Pan background
First, a little backstory about Peter Pan, for those whose experience is limited to Disney’s animated version. James Barrie was a well-known Victorian playwright whose childhood was marked by tragedy when his favored older brother died in a drowning accident. His mother was devastated, and James tried to take on his brother’s identity to please her, even imitating his walk and mannerisms. Even as an adult he was small in stature, and though he became successful, he did not seem to have a satisfying marriage. You could say that he knew what it was to never grow up.
Peter Pan is a delightful fantasy adventure about Indians and pirates on an island full of discovery and excitement, but there are deep underlying themes about longing for one’s own mother and the proper time for children to grow up.
What about Tinkerbell?
To address Tamra’s specific questions, Tinkerbell is not the charming, spunky fairy that Disney made her out to be. She is not a character to admire, and you might simply point that out to your children by saying “Tinkerbell really isn’t very nice in this story, is she?” and leave it at that. Some words to keep in your vocabulary might be “silly boy,” “party” and “nightgown.”
Two questions and two answers to consider when reading aloud
Tamra raises valid concerns about language that is considered coarser in our generation than it was for the original Victorian audience. How should Christians respond to a book that is frequently listed on classic lists but contains some questionable material?
The Abridged Option
I used to think that reading abridged classics was cheating. Now I think that they may play a role in a child’s reading life. There are a wide range of abridged versions out there, but the collection I like best is Classic Starts. They are printed as affordable hardbacks, with good illustrations and paper feel, and the text is not oversimplified. Later on, when you revisit the original Peter Pan, the story will already be familiar and they may have longer attention spans for detailed descriptions and worldview discussions.
There are numerous advantages to reading a book aloud. Two that particularly apply in this case are 1) you can skip objectionable language or substitute preferable words. 2) If you skim ahead, you can note passages to summarize if you come across lengthy descriptions or things you would really rather not explain. The downside to these two approaches is that if your children *really* love the story and return to it in later years, they might say, “Wow, I didn’t remember that word in the story!” or “Man, I didn’t remember that boring part.” Or they might again gloss over the descriptions and language and not be bothered by it. The spoken word often sticks in our minds more than reading it.
If your children are under six, they will benefit from the overall language exposure, but they probably won’t retain many of the details in a novel like Peter Pan. You can finish it now if you wish while they play/draw/color, and decide whether or not YOU love it enough to read it again in a couple years. Maybe your kids will ask you to read it again!
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter! For another “Ask a Librarian” query, read about Lemony Snicket here. Betsy wrote a lively post about balancing your reading diet between classics and recent publications here, and compiled a list of 30 great “new” books here.