Neverland. It is the home of our eternal childhoods, with all those wonderful dreams and adventures.

In J.M. Barrie’s play and novel, Peter Pan, it is plural. There are many Neverlands, one for each of us.

With the death of Michael Jackson, a childish pop star on a strange quest for his lost youth, we all find ourselves reflecting on issues of childhood, fantasy worlds, and the reluctance of leaving a creative, carefree youth for the burdens of maturity.

While we must, perhaps, become grown-ups (drat!), we need not leave all things imaginative and fantastic behind. Our lasting love of great books for young readers, especially those of fantasy literature that celebrate the wonder of childhood, must reflect some bit of that in all of us.

Indeed, a good book is like the story of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew older. It never ages. We can pick up the novel Peter Pan, or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, or (insert the name of your favorite here!), and remember being like those children, and travel with them on their adventures one more time.

if you haven’t read it, the story of Peter Pan by J.M. (James Matthew) Barrie is quite lovely, full of the Victorian whimsy that I’ve suggested is a cornerstone of modern fantasy.

Here’s a bit about Neverland.

I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.

It would be an easy map if that were all, but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needle-work, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on, and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.

Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal. John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it. John lived in a boat turned upside down on the sands, Michael in a wigwam, Wendy in a house of leaves deftly sewn together. John had no friends, Michael had friends at night, Wendy had a pet wolf forsaken by its parents, but on the whole the Neverlands have a family resemblance, and if they stood still in a row you could say of them that they have each other’s nose, and so forth. On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles [simple boat]. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.

Peter is a young boy, still with his baby teeth, and he stays that way. How old?

“I don’t know,” he replied uneasily, “but I am quite young. . . . Wendy, I ran away the day I was born.”
. . .
“It was because I heard father and mother,” he explained in a low voice, “talking about what I was to be when I became a man.” He was extraordinarily agitated now. “I don’t want ever to be a man,” he said with passion. “I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. So I ran away to Kensington Gardens and lived a long long time among the fairies.”

And he now lives with “the lost boys.”

“Who are they?”

“They are the children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Neverland to defray expenses. I’m captain.”

We’re all captains of our own Neverlands. If we have a good library of fantastic books, we can travel there anytime we like. Far better to do it in fiction, of course, than trying to change who we are physically, to try in vain to alter reality, as we can learn from the sad story of Michael Jackson.

(Blog post on the FantasyLit.com blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)