I tumbl’d this last night…
I’ve said many times that I have no memory of the book that made me a reader or the book that made me see myself, and I’m not sure if those moments have ever happened.
if I were asked, I could probably name a single thing that set me on my path to graduate school, that inspired me to seek out a degree specifically in children’s literature and that informs the way I approach my work and scholarship and creativity….
…and that is Peter Pan.
The play. And the fact that people forget it wasn’t a book first, but also that it was in a book before it was a play. Because it wins at meta.
The utter genius of the whole thing, that it is, simply, what play is, developmentally, anthropologically, sociologically.
The things you can (and must) unpack in it about narratives of play, constructions of childhood, violence, and gender roles.
The endless lenses and schools of critical theory you can (and must) occasionally see it through in order to fully understand the deeply problematic racialized and gendered components that say so very much about the zeitgeist of the turn of the 20th century and are important to understand, not wave away as unimportant, irrelevant, passé, or unharmful. They are the opposite of all of those things.
The brilliant move of having Mr. Darling be Captain Hook but not having it all be but a dream at the end. Because magic realism means both/and, not either/or. Never Land is true and also magical.
Tinker Bell being an utter bitch and not even being sorry about it. Bow down, mothafuckas.
Tinker Bell being dragged along by a misogynist brat that she has the misfortune of loving (platonic or romantic, you pick) and never ever treated with respect by her fellow characters or her audience and yet STILL sticking by everyone.
Adult men wanting to kidnap a little girl, possibly played by a little girl and possibly played by an adult woman, so she can be their “mother.”
The adults being portrayed as bullies of children, which adults truly are a lot of the time.
Peter Pan being entirely self-centered and controlling and pleased with himself no matter what, and never apologizing. The utter joy of being Pan.
The fact that there are very few children of color and female children, in literature and in real life, who get to crow without consequence like that.
The musical, which further weirded the tradition of having women play the role of a little boy started by the original play by having grown women with an entirely different tessitura than a grown man or a young boy sing songs while pretending to be young boys. While sometimes in a mixed cast of adults and children and sometimes in a cast of all adults playing children. And the fact that women play a little boy who is a misogynist in an arena that traditionally said that only little boys could play mature women. So much potentially creepy stuff going on backstage and so much weird subtext possible and different in each cast.
The fact that Barrie left the rights to the entire trademark to the Great Ormond Street Hospital.
The fact that people mistake this play’s continued relevance in the canon as an excuse to continue performing it (or the musical) without consideration of the triggering elements above, rather than recognizing its relevance as a text and holding it in the same space they do Huckleberry Finn and teaching and approaching it accordingly, as an absolute masterpiece that also needs to be treated carefully and put in its place.
All of these things that I see in this text and love to passionately discuss with others are why I am super not pleased with this horrendously shitty NBC production, which lacks sensitivity, consideration, interrogation, talent (Walken notwithstanding, and Christian Borle, who must have done something really terrible and an NBC employee is blackmailing him for life), and joy.
It’s really not about last night’s production, even though last night’s production was shitty and a waste of what could have (just like last year’s shitty Sound of Music Live!) been a chance to celebrate American musical theatre and open up access to those who can’t regularly travel and buy tickets. Instead, it was filled with horrible actors who were not trained to do what they were doing, which is a shame, because NBC’s idea really was a great one.
But like I said, it’s not about that. I just wanted to talk about why I love to study children’s literature, and why I want to do it formally again, as soon as I can find a PhD program that will have me (tips, anyone?). J.M. Barrie’s play is a shining example of why we should study children’s literature at an academic level and why people shouldn’t think of it as a lesser discipline.
For one thing, the world just doesn’t need another dissertation on Keats or Austen. It just doesn’t. There is all this hand wringing about how there is a glut of PhDs on the job market and no one hiring, and maybe part of that is that all of these new graduates study the same thing and think that that is a real contribution to a greater purpose when it’s not. OF COURSE we should all have some common reading that we find important and compelling; it helps us connect and explore the world and understand traditions. But it also keeps us in a rut and contributes to the ghettoization of literatures from different traditions, because while literature didn’t stop being good or relevant when F. Scott Fitzgerald died, that’s the general attitude, no matter how much English departments will pretend that they have corrected that by having selected electives on nonwhite people or nonhetero people. They’re electives, not requirements, because they’re still considered less worthy, less interesting, less relevant, and less serious.
Children’s literature lands there, if it lands in higher education at all, and it gets little to no respect. If it does, it’s only for pre-service teachers or early childhood development courses. That is not to say that those aren’t important, but you should study children’s literature as literature sometimes, not just as That Crap You Give To Those Dumb Kids Because They’re Too Stupid To Read Real Literature, which is the attitude carried by all those Ruth Graham-esque articles these days.
Why I study this, and why Peter Pan is the perfect example of the case for studying children’s literature: what could say more about our history, about the state of culture at a given moment, about our fears, than what we decide is “for children,” the demographic that cannot with any power or clout produce literature for itself? Certainly not the latest pocket paperback thriller. Please not another Gen-X white guy writing utterly unconsciously about the state of being on top of the world, gazing at female bodies and ignoring race and floating through life without a care. Not even the Great American Novel of the month. None of those, no matter how insightful or fun they might be, will make a statement as much as the books we feed to the little people who will grow up to become us. Those things that we create and provide access to in order to (we hope) define childhood and control what a child will become are major, important artifacts, for cultural studies disciplines AND for serious literary consideration. Period.
I went to school for children’s literature because of that. I loved it. I loved being around people who swooned over beautiful language and brilliant illustration, who willingly learned art theory in order to better understand visual rhetoric, who seamlessly moved from Foucaultian theory to gender studies to Campbellian archetypes while studying the same text, who recognized specific editors’ hands in author’s work, who could study a book as a book in a vacuum and as a product of culture with peritexts and paratexts worth considering. I want to study children’s literature some more because I love being a student and a scholar more than I love most things in the world most of the time, and also because no matter what other jobs I may want to try, this is something where I am most likely to make a contribution that matters and that sticks out. Contributions that stick out are what expand the canon and keep things rolling. And though it would offend many, I honestly think that it is a waste of the minds of current PhD students in literature to study the same old shit ad nauseum.
It’s also just something that I truly don’t understand, the thing that kept me from understanding the “value” of English classes I was required to take in high school and college and made me not want to go to graduate school or study literature at all until I found a program that agreed with my views: if you have a brilliant mind capable of making connections and coming up with ideas, if you are someone who is always thinking about new things and asking questions, why in the world would you limit that to reformulating the same old questions that have been asked about the same old things that everyone has already defined for you and trained you to think about? How can you say that you are a curious person if you only want to explore heavily trodden terrain with a guidebook someone else wrote?
I’m just glad I went to a master’s program where people agreed that a cultural phenomenon like children’s literature is the exact thing that academia means, and I just hope that someday soon I can find a place to further my education and scholarship in it. And I hope more people do the same. There are too many great new minds being wasted on old ideas, and ever more great minds that don’t even realize that there are a couple places, like my MA program, that would appreciate and nurture them where traditional academia has told them they are not welcome. But we need more places to go so that more of us can get in there, and we also need the places that hold the keys to the tower to open their minds a bit.