The Peter Pan Effect in Children’s Books

Peter Pan is the famous character, created by J M Barrie in the early years of the twentieth century and remembered ever since as the boy who never grew up. In both plays and children’s books, Peter and his friend Wendy, as well as Captain Hook, the ticking crocodile and the Red Indians, have entertained generations of children who, unfortunately, unlike Peter Pan were destined to reach adulthood. Peter and all his friends and enemies, like all characters in well-loved books, remain fixed at their age of portrayal, and never advance in years. This is one sense in which all literary characters are Peter Pans, but more than that, all the principal characters in popular children’s books are really children who have never grown up.

J M Barrie is said to have derived the idea of a boy who would never grow up from his older brother, David, who was killed while ice skating on the day before his fourteenth birthday. Being remembered by his mother and brother forever a young teenager, he never grew up in their memory and so became the prototype Peter Pan. But the literary Peter Pan had a lengthy evolution. First mentioned in a novel: The Little White Bird, published in 1902, the idea was moulded into a play: Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, first staged in 1904, and finally, further developed and published as a novel: Peter and Wendy in 1911.Children are said to identify with characters who are children and to like to read about children. This is true of many popular children’s stories from Enid Blyton’s famous five and Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons to Roald Dahl’s Charlie Bucket and J J Rowling’s Peter Potter. Yet all these books contain adult characters and some popular children’s books feature an adult hero. The secret is that even these adult principal characters, like Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant, behave like children, with all the vitality and zest for life that happy children possess in abundance. In Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic: The Wind in the Willows, the imagination is stretched to the limit with animal characters portraying adult human beings behaving as children. Every child would love to be as free to do just what they like, as Toad of Toad Hall!

Perhaps this literary phenomenon of eternal childhood is a reflection of the human condition. A venerable Oxford professor strolling beside the Thames is said to have observed to a colleague that ‘the tragedy of old age is not that we are old, but that we are young!’ We all marvel at the fact that although the body grows old we remain the same person that we were at school. The fact that we are all Peter Pans may be forgotten in the socioeconomic turmoil of middle life, but it is known to the old as it is to the young when they first read J M Barrie’s famous book.