Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Book-A-Day #9 (7/25): Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, illustrated by Racquel Jaramillo

Insert here a great scream of anguish, as Firefox crashed just as I was spell-checking the first version of this post. I think this is the first substantial post I've lost, which is no consolation.

Anyway, I've been reading this to Thing 1 and Thing 2 at bedtime, one chapter a night, for just over two weeks, and we just finished tonight.

I need to jump on my usual hobby-horse first off: Peter Pan is the title of the play. Peter and Wendy is the title of the novel. The fact that the novel has generally been published under the wrong title for eighty years does not make it right. End of sermon.

The edition we read is a very nice, large-format lap book from Simon & Schuster, with very handsome and colorful photo-illustrations by Jaramillo, whom I'd never heard of but whom the flap copy says is an art director for an unnamed major publishing company.

(Now I have to try to re-create what I said the first time.)

I've discovered that reading a book out loud to two squirming boys is not at all the same experience as reading that same book in one's own head; some books just don't work well out loud, and some work better than they do when read silently. (We read Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth just before Peter Pan, and it went over OK, though I think the boys were just a bit too young to really get it. On the other hand, I spent much of 2005 reading the first three "Harry Potter" books out loud to Thing 1, and those read beautifully.)

I'd read Peter Pan a couple of years back, as part of a general Pan-frenzy (I read the play, the novel, and even Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which was written before the play and features a somewhat different Peter), and I enjoyed it a lot.

But this time, reading aloud, I discovered that what Barrie had done was to take an excellent play and turn it into a mediocre novel, not by adding incidents, dialogue, detail or anything else of interest, but instead by laying on the Victorian drivel with a trowel. There are several interminable pages where the deadly Jas. Hook obsesses about "bad form" until the boys have run out of the room and the reader is nearly comatose; I will never get those half-hours of my life back. There are wonderful ideas and turns of phrase in the novel, but they're all from the play, and they're all smothered in treacle. This is a heavily, heavily narrated book, and the voice is extremely embedded in the world of 1906, and so may strike many readers as sexist, possibly racist, definitely full of himself, and always, always, as full of bloviation and interminable sentimental piffle.

As I say, anyone reading this alone might not notice that much, since it's a short book and it zips by pretty fast if you're not reading it out loud. But, if you are thinking about reading it out loud, take this warning to heart. I do think this would be appreciated far more by girls than boys these days, since it loads up the maudlin sentimentality to such a level that even that old softy Thing 1 wasn't interested. Peter Pan is stuck in its time, and that time is a very foreign country to most of today's kids.

(And, if any sentences of phrases in this post are less than felicitous, I will claim with a clear conscience that the first version was much cleaner, smoother, and altogether a finer reading experience.)

1 comment:

Sean P. Fodera said...

Racquel was our art director at Holt, but has recently moved on to another major New York publishing house.

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