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J. M. Barrie in 1901

It is sometimes said that the main contribution of Edith Nesbit to children’s literature is that she anchored it firmly in real life. This may seem a surprising claim, given the magical creatures in some of her books, but the concept is comprehensible when we consider the other works that have survived from the first decade of the 20th century.

Until Nesbit indeed the great classics of children’s literature were fantasies, as in the wonderful works of Lewis Carroll – as was seen in the recent film of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, where Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen were much more memorable than Alice herself.

Carroll of course belonged in the 19th century, but the first few years of the 20th century brought forth two other classics which are still considered at the very apex of children’s literature. Interestingly, and perhaps understandably, they were both individual works, and nothing else their creators wrote came anywhere near them in either interest or popularity – quite unlike in the cases of the other writers of children’s books I have dealt with so far, and those who dominated the scene in the second half of the century too.

The first of these classics was J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, which was in fact a play that has been retold and represented in many forms. Most notable of these is its annual reincarnation as the best loved of pantomimes, that strange cultural artifact the British indulge in at Christmas. The story lends itself of course to the characteristic features of panto, with the lead role being played by a girl and the villain being obviously monstrous so that children can boo him lustily.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2010
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