Peter Pan is not a Disney character.
He was created by Sir James Matthew Barry, 1st Baronet, a Scottish playwright (and novelist) who wrote as J.M. Barrie. Peter Pan’s first appearance was in a few chapters of an adult novel written by Barrie called The Little White Bird, which was published in 1902. Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, written by J.M. Barrie and illustrated by Arthur Rackham, was published a few years later as a children’s novel and was the first work dedicated primarily to Peter.
The Peter Pan in the children’s book is very different from the 1953 Disney-animated Peter Pan film that most of us Millennials grew up with, in spite of the large period of time between the movie’s release and our own childhoods. In Kensington Gardens, Peter is a fat, bald, naked baby who is only seven days old; hardly the dashing fencer with red hair you might have crushed on as a young girl.
The book is written in the very whimsical style that is unique to fantasy novels at the turn-of-the-century, and it still resonates as a fun read today.
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens explores the beginnings of Peter Pan, who flies out of a window to explore Kensington Gardens at night, but is unable to return when he realizes he is not a bird and starts to doubt his ability to fly. He lives a life amongst the birds and fairies who secretly inhabit the park and goes on adventures exploring his surroundings and enjoying their company, while never quite becoming one of them. There’s plenty more than one bedtime’s worth of stories in this 178-page book, but it is an easy read. The joy is perhaps even less in the words than it is in the illustrations, however.
I am a big Peter Pan fan. I have a Peter Pan-themed tattoo across most of my upper back and the Disney movie was one of my very favorites as a child, but I didn’t even know this book existed until I found out that it was one which Arthur Rackham had illustrated. It is a very generously illustrated books with large, color pictures on what feels like every other page. Rackham was a famous illustrator of fairy tales in the early 1900’s and it is unfortunate that his charming and imaginative drawings aren’t more famous today. They are well enough known that this book is even more popular among collectors of Rackham’s work than it is among modern-day parents who have missed out on exposure to the contained visual delights.
If you are looking to gift a child a joy that you can have in common in both of your childhoods, this would be a great choice.
There is lots of room for imagination, and wild and wonderful things play out on each page with beautiful pictures to help interest younger children who may not yet be able to read it to themselves. As an adult it’s an enjoyable journey through the forgotten past of a popular icon with truly beautiful art bringing alive Barrie’s visions. It’s different than what you might expect when you hear “Peter Pan,” but that is exactly why it’s worth picking up and leafing through.