Sunday, May 13, 2007

Peter Pan and the Unchecked Ego

Peter Pan is, as we all know, the boy who would not grow up. Instead, he would lead a company of children into battle with grown men, whisk into the sky without anything more that dust and happy thoughts to fuel him, and hang out with half naked mermaid babes on the beach. In some ways, that is not the life your typical ten year old leads.

Peter Pan is seen as a classic and quintessential piece of children’s literature. It also might be the personification of what most often separates children’s literature from any other kind. Peter Pan is the hero of his own story. After all, the only reason he ever came to see Wendy was to hear about is own heroic deeds. He exemplifies one of the most common gaps between adult and child: ego. Of course, many adults have big egos; however, most children are born into a world that seems to be made just for them. Nearly blind, their first years on earth are spent totally dependant on others. Family comes rushing to their every cry. Much of children’s rambunctious behavior can be attributed to ego. It is untamed and free, newly released from the world of infancy where they are the most important person. This is often the stage in parenting where manners and civility are taught – the antithesis of the youthful realm.

Maybe this is why Peter Pan is beloved by children over 100 years after he was first portrayed on stage. I guess children were as enticed by this prepubescent, hot shot and his disregard for rules as today’s children.

Magic powers and adventure is always a lure for kids, but there is nothing like the child-hero with an ego. A large ego is something children seem to gravitate to, while adults often view it as a turn off, especially if seen in a child. There is another classic kid’s tale that exhibits an egocentric child and his resulting mischief. One that is often regarded as the first modern children’s book: Where the Wild Things Are (1963). If you read this one years ago, you know that this kid is bad. After attacking his dog with cutlery, devilishly dancing in a wolf costume, he is finally sentenced to bed with no supper. To stave off boredom, he finds himself in a land of scary beasts, where he conquers and becomes king. In another story, all absurdity breaks lose in the most amusing way possible when a cat in a funky hat shows two bored kids a wacky time.

As a side note - If not a person, it is often a place that defies the rules. The noble Harry Potter has the only schooling any child would gladly endure. And both Alice and Dorothy plunge into worlds that defy all logic, only to get sick of it and wish to return home (something I don’t think many children could identify with without having been there to get sick of it themselves.) In a time where the most common film critique heard from adults pertains to how believable or “realistic” the film is, this is worth noting.

This may help illuminate some peculiarities of the genre. What exactly is children’s literature? Yes, they are stories targeted for children, usually containing blindingly bright colors, and a touch of fantasy. However, the line between manufactured tastes (though often researched for effectiveness) and true child appetites needs to be continuously observed. Children do not write what we know to be children’s literature. It is worth examining whether the unchecked ego of child-heroes is naturally admired by the powerless young people in our world. However, the observation that children often fight to remain in their wild world, where they are king/queen, may be a helpful clue.