Children's literature is often a source of entertainment for adults as well as children. For evidence, one needs only to point at the wildly popular Harry Potter books or Philip Pullman's marvelous His Dark Materials trilogy. Anticipation for the latest in kiddie lit, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's Peter and the Starcatchers--a prequel to J.M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan, has been high. If the hype turns out to be unjustified, Barry and Pearson clearly mean well with Starcatchers, intending to give a good swashbuckling to a beloved classic.
Barry, perhaps known best as a humor columnist, and Pearson, a writer of suspense thrillers and sometime Idaho resident, have noble intentions with this book. Their attempt to return Romanticism to children's literature is refreshing, as is their rejection of kiddie lit traditions such as depressing naturalism à la Beverly Cleary or scatological twaddle like Zombie Butts from Uranus! and its sequel, The Day My Butt Went Psycho!. For its own part, Peter and the Starcatchers has an old-fashioned adventurous plot, with high-stakes battles between good and evil. What's missing is a fine ear for its genre. Simply put, Starcatchers lacks magic.
As they've written a prequel to someone else's story, Barry and Pearson must be aware that they've invited inevitable comparisons to Peter Pan. Yet they seem to miss Peter Pan's point in their very first pages. Starcatchers' Peter "had no idea how old he really was, so he gave himself whatever age suited him, and it suited him to always be one year older than the oldest of his mates." Whereas Barrie's Peter Pan, when asked his age, answers thusly: "'I don't know,' he replied uneasily, 'but I am quite young.'" Barrie's Peter Pan is so paranoid about aging that there's a neurosis named for it. Barry and Pearson aren't stupid, so one wonders how they could miss such a huge thing. This fundamental misunderstanding of the psychology of their main character sets the tone for Starcatchers, but it's only the tip of the iceberg.
The plot of Starcatchers, centering on three ships, two villains and one precious cargo making their way across the water, is insubstantial: connecting dots A-to-B-to-C until the end. The details on which the plot hangs--descriptions of people, settings, action--are likewise flimsy. Where Barrie gives us fresh description, like that of the tiny pearls of Peter Pan's baby teeth, Barry and Pearson eschew evocations for approximations. Most of Starcatchers' characters are either caricatures, in the case of the villainous adults, or paper-thin, in the case of protagonists Peter, Mary and their retinue. It's impossible to be chilled by the authors' proto-Captain Hook, Black Stache, and it's equally impossible to wholeheartedly care about Peter--a stock Plucky Boy character barely differentiated from the hundreds of Plucky Boy characters in other books.
To be fair, Barry and Pearson deserve some credit for writing Starcatchers. Their hearts are in the right place, and there's always the potential for generating interest in the original. But Starcatchers itself is such light fare. We all know authors mustn't drop random f-bombs or include explicit sex in children's books, and the ideas must not be too abstract, but Barry and Pearson also strip away any interesting complexities of characterization, plot and theme. Too often, the difference between authors who break form and write a children's book (like Barry and Pearson) and writers whose primary audience is children, is an understanding of what stays in children's books. Too often the former type of author writes down to kids, while the latter writes for them as (albeit less experienced) people.
As a prequel, Peter and the Starcatchers does not fit with Barrie's Peter Pan. Starcatchers ducks the original's magic as well as its wistful tone and melancholy. Yet if a reader has only seen Disney's cartoon version of Peter Pan (which has got to be the version Barry and Pearson wrote from), then Peter and the Starcatchers is less of a wash. There's still the temptation to recommend skipping Peter and the Starcatchers for the original. Barry and Pearson are both talented writers in their own right, but that doesn't yet include thoughtful children's literature. Starcatchers is benevolently inoffensive fluff that doesn't stick. I suspect many children (forget the adults) will find their intelligence insulted by this well-meaning but weightless book and will turn to more enduring stories.