Abi Elphinstone chats Peter Pan retelling Saving Neverland
We chatted with Abi Elphinstone about her Peter Pan retelling, Saving Neverland
A reluctant Martha and excited Scruff are swept off to Neverland and into the company of the Lost Kids. But when Scruff is kidnapped, Martha must rediscover all the imagination, magic and belief she has buried deep inside herself for so long, to save him – and Neverland itself. We chatted with Abi Elphinstone about her Peter Pan retelling, Saving Neverland:
Why did you decide to keep Peter Pan but have another fairy in place of Tinker Bell?
I wanted to keep Peter Pan in Saving Neverland because he’s such a brilliantly complex character. He spends his days battling pirates, swimming with mermaids and never growing up yet his adventures are tainted by loneliness as every child leaves Neverland in the end and it’s this complexity that makes Peter such an intriguing character. There’s much to love about Tinker Bell in the original – her loyalty to Peter and her thirst for adventure – but she’s ultimately portrayed as a stereotypically jealous female and celebrated by J.M. Barrie for her physical attributes. I wanted a fairy who championed other women and who was celebrated for her intellect rather than her figure. So, along came Muddle – a fairy who stands up for ten-year-old Martha Pennydrop when Peter says ‘It’s a shame you’re a girl, Martha. I had hoped for two boys for an adventure of this size’ and who is so clever she can solve Neverland’s trickiest riddles.
I love that this feels both like a retelling and a sequel to J.M. Barrie’s original. Was it easy to decide what you want changed / to keep?
I wanted to retain what was most precious about the original – the intoxicating wonder of flying over the River Thames and discovering Neverland; the nail-biting peril of battling pirates and outwitting strange beasts; the wit and bravado of Peter Pan himself; the joy and ache of growing up – but I also wanted to address the more unsettling aspects of the story. Namely the sexism and racist stereotypes. So, I kept Neverland but I reimagined it, stripping it of cultural misrepresentations and casting it as a winter wonderland instead, complete with frozen lagoons, icy forests and snow-capped mountains. I kept the Neverbird but made her more central to the story. I kept the Neversea though I put a Barrie-esque spin on it by saying it was filled with the tears mothers and fathers shed when their children leave home. And I kept Captain Hook and his crew (even if I did embellish a few pirate names: Gastronomy Belch and Ludicrous Tash). I toyed with the idea of making Peter Pan grow up. I thought about getting him to learn humility and self-control. I considered the idea that he might, finally, understand what it means to belong to a family. But he proved too stubborn. And part of his charm, and power, lies in the way he cannot, and will not, be changed. So, in Saving Neverland, I’ve retained Peter’s bravado, I’ve kept his enthusiasm for danger and I’ve clung on to his reservations about family.
There are many animals in Saving Neverland and they are a wonderful addition to the snowy imagery of your Neverland. How did you choose them?
I often say that I’m a writer because the Scottish wilderness, where I grew up, made me one. I used to watch golden eagles launch off crags up the glen and minke whales surface off the rugged west coast. I regularly tweak the animals of my childhood when creating magical beasts. The golden eagles became Neverland’s stormeagles (giant eagles that fly you to the stars) and the minke whales became gulperwhales (enormous whales studded with stardust that let you sit in their own mouths while they glide through the Neversea).
The riddles and clues make this so unpredictable! Was it difficult to create the riddles? Any advice?
I’m dyslexic so I find coming up with riddles near impossible! But as a child, I adored stories that had anagrams and riddles in them, even if I rarely solved them. My little brother told me the riddle in Saving Neverland – I’ve no idea where he heard it!
Each kid’s Neverland is affected by their Mainland childhood. If you visit Neverland now, what do you think you would find?
The Little Blue Door. Just beyond Edzell, the closest village to where I grew up, there’s a river. A humpback bridge crosses this river and after it there’s a wall with a small blue door built into it. It doesn’t look like much and most people miss it. But my parents took me through it as a child and it felt like discovering Narnia through the wardrobe. Because on the other side of this door there’s a mighty gorge with a river filled with leaping salmon. There are beach trees sheltering deer. There’s a forgotten folly in the woods. And a rickety bridge which most definitely houses a troll beneath…
Many kids, like Martha, need to grow up earlier than necessary because they need to take care of their younger siblings. How do you think parents can ensure the older siblings can still enjoy a bit of their childhood even if the parents are very busy?
There’s a lot of pressure on parents to fill every second of their children’s lives with activities so that they’re never bored. But one thing I think my parents did really well, and which enabled me to stay childlike for longer, was giving me the time and space to be bored. They didn’t organise my life into endless after-school clubs. They let me play and daydream. I climbed trees in the garden, I made potions out of flower petals, I built dens. It was a childhood loaded with accidental adventures and this not only prolonged my childhood but it also made me more imaginative which later fuelled my longing to write.
And finally, what do you think adults can do to ensure they ‘grow down’ a bit every now and then?
The happiest grown-ups I know are the ones who remember, vividly, what it felt like to be a child. To see the whole world – with all its thrills, possibilities and wonder – at their feet. We become knowing and cynical as adults. We see problems not possibilities. But I like to think there will always be more miracles and marvels in the world than fear and despair. Ditch the screens. Get outside. See the miracles. And don’t take yourself too seriously.
thank you for the article