For Young Readers

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Peter Pan in Scarlet, by Geraldine McCaughrean (Margaret K. McElderry, $17.99; ages 9- 12). Remember the scene in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in which baby Peter, having flown out his bedroom window, tries to get back in and finds it barred? "There is no second chance, not for most of us," J.M. Barrie remarks after this awful moment, twisting the knife. "When we reach the window it is Lock-out Time. The iron bars are up for life."

That's generally the way it is with children's literary classics, too. Somehow, they sprout bars, locking in their magic against borrowers and recyclers. From Charles Tritten's Heidi Grows Up to William Horwood's sequels to The Wind in the Willows, follow-ups to kids' favorites have mostly been pleasant but pale affairs, the originals shorn of their shadows. It's certainly true of the two bestselling Peter Pan "prequels" by humorist Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, which are rollicking good fun in their up-to-the-minute American fashion but galaxies removed from Barrie's many-layered Edwardian world. There was no reason to expect anything different of the official sequel, to be entrusted to the winner of a worldwide competition sponsored by London's Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, which holds the soon-to-expire European rights to Peter Pan .

Except that the winner was the distinguished Geraldine McCaughrean, a prolific Londoner who not only spins her own yarns but is also justly admired for her muscular, poetic retellings of classics from "Gilgamesh" to Pilgrim's Progress . "I find there's no particular reason to write a new story all the time when there are so many old stories people are forgetting," she has said. But she also enjoys giving old stories a new twist; two years ago, she won her third Whitbread children's book award -- an honor akin to the Newbery Medal -- for a novel set on Noah's ark.

Neverland proved to be right up McCaughrean's alley. As her title suggests, the sequel she dreamed up is anything but pale. It's scarlet: like autumn, like danger, like a certain pirate captain's second-best coat. It also fairly flames with exuberance. Barrie, that subtle satirist, might actually have found it too exuberant, peppered as it is with italics and capital letters. But other than that, I think he would have found much to like about Peter Pan in Scarlet.

For one thing, there's its cleverness. As McCaughrean has pointed out, this assignment presented her with a few logistical problems: At the end of Peter Pan and Wendy, the Darling children and the Lost Boys return to London, grow up and have children of their own, while Peter stays behind in Neverland, a boy forever. How to get everyone back together? That sad villain Hook, meanwhile, was down the crocodile's gullet, and a resurrection was out of the question. "I don't do ghosts," McCaughrean has said. But what is Neverland without Hook? Or Tinker Bell? How long do fairies live?

McCaughrean's solutions have a silken persuasiveness. Twenty years have passed, and "dreams are leaking out of Neverland," bothering the Old Boys in London. But of course, "everybody knows that when you put on dressing-up clothes, you become someone else." So they all don their own children's clothes and grow young again, eligible to return and investigate the problem. Off they fly, Mrs. Wendy, Mr. John, Judge Tootles (morphed into Princess Tootles, since he had only daughters), the Hon. Slightly, Dr. Curly and the Twins. (Nibs balks at the last minute, and they had lost Michael forever in the Great War.) A redheaded firecracker of a male fairy named Fireflyer takes Tinker Bell's place, though Tink is triumphantly wished back to life on page 227. As for Hook, let's just say Jonah's trick works with crocodiles as well as whales. The trouble is, Peter finds Hook's second-best coat -- and you recall what happens when a person puts on dressing-up clothes. McCaughrean takes Barrie's ambivalence toward his boy hero and runs with it.

She also shrewdly saw that she couldn't just recycle Neverland, with its set-piece lagoon, mermaids, redskins and pirates. New things have to unfold. And so the island has changed: Not only is it autumn there now; the place is silent, dying, the lagoon "a horse's flank slick black and streaked with foam." Circus animals appear, along with their strange, obsequious circus master. What better impetus for Quest and Adventure than all these puzzles?

Above all, though, what distinguishes this book is the quality McCaughrean has praised in Barrie: a relish for language. She, too, unleashes sentences that crack like whips: "They watched the days go by like trains." "Where the bee sneaks, there snuck I." "The mast looked so tall you might climb up it with a candlesnuffer and put out all the stars." And she shares his weakness for sly, adult jokes, such as when the Twins insist on naming one landmark Twin Peaks. She reminds you how funny the original still is, a century on.

If her tale is not also as dark, that's because McCaughrean just doesn't give a toss about Barrie's iron bars. Grown-ups can get back to Neverland in her book. Hook can stir our sympathy. Autumn can revert to summer. Sequels are possible. And for once, we believe.

-- Elizabeth Ward (warde@washpost.com)


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