All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day, when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.1
Thus begins J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911), which introduced to readers one of the classic tales of children’s literature. The tale of Peter Pan, the child who refused to grow up, contains some of the essential qualities of the genre. Like every good children’s story, it carefully combines adventure with domesticity, playfulness with pedagogy, wild imagination with everyday concerns. Over the years, Peter, Wendy, Captain Hook, and Tinker Bell have captivated children and adults alike in numerous book, stage, and film adaptations. And yet at the heart of this rich repertoire is a certain ambiguity. For in all truthfulness there is no original, no real Peter Pan. Readers who wish to familiarize themselves with the original tale find themselves somewhat like the frustrated Mrs. Darling, whose futile attempt to catch Peter leaves her with only his shadow in hand.
Peter Pan appeared for the first time in J. M. Barrie’s The Little White [End Page 383] Bird, published in 1902 as an adult novel. The figure was then reworked into several of Barrie’s plays and stories. However, it is not through these original, surprisingly dark versions that most readers today know Peter but rather through other writers’ and artists’ more light-hearted adaptations of the tale.2 The elusiveness of the eternal child is indicative perhaps of the illusiveness of childhood more generally. As Mrs. Darling’s comment to her daughter emphasizes, childhood is a state of constant transition, it is a slippery present that is forever seeping through our fingers, always haunted by its future — “the beginning of the end.” This flux lies at the very heart of the modern concept of childhood, and it is this changeability that the genre of children’s literature addresses. Modern children’s books are there not only to entertain but also to educate, they address not only the child of the present but also, and perhaps more importantly, the adult of the future.3
In fact, Peter is in good company; several other heroes of the modern children’s library, such as Robinson Crusoe or Lemuel Gulliver, are likewise mere shadows of their earlier selves, which appeared in books targeting adults. Like Peter Pan, these children’s heroes are displaced, and their ghost-like quality permeates the genre. Indeed, there is no real Peter Pan precisely because there is — as Jaqueline Rose has famously argued — no real children’s literature. According to Rose, children’s literature is not really for children at all; rather, what it addresses is a cultural construct, a “child” concocted to fill the needs of adults. One cannot, therefore, discuss children’s literature, indeed one cannot discuss childhood, without unpacking some troubling questions about us, the adults who produce children, and our culture, language, and hidden agendas. When we invoke children, argues Rose, “it is above all our investment in doing so which counts.”4 [End Page 384]
Rose’s claims have caused a small revolution within the intimate field of English children’s literature studies. They have been debated, defended, and defamed — often at one and the same time — by many of the field’s central theorists.5 But as far as these theories have reached, their impact outside the field of English children’s literature is rarely felt. Indeed, while Rose’s 1984 study caused a proverbial earthquake in the English-speaking world, the libraries of nurseries around the world have gone unshaken. And yet...