Sunday, October 9, 2016

Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

My eldest daughter recommended this book after she read it. Since I generally try to have at least a little idea what my kids are into (although I am pretty much the opposite of a helicopter parent), I figured it would be worth taking along on one of our camping trips.

Ridley Pearson is apparently a bestselling author of suspense and thriller novels, although I have not read any of his works. Dave Barry, on the other hand, has long been one of my favorites. I used to read his column avidly as a teen, and later collected a number of his humor books. (I should probably re-read Dave Barry Turns 40 now that I have turned 40…) Later, my wife and I read his novels Big Trouble and Tricky Business. Both are sendups of hard-boiled fiction genres, and are both hilarious and shockingly adult. It was a bit weird, though, to see Barry as an author of a children’s book. How would that work out? 

The idea is pretty straightforward. Peter and the Starcatchers is a prequel to J. M. Barrie’s story of Peter Pan. (First written as a play, then adapted into the novel Peter and Wendy, which is the one most of us know. Although probably more are familiar with the Disney movie than the book, which is a shame.) This presented some challenges, obviously. Barrie’s novel is a product of its time, and suffers from an abundance of colonialism as well as a bunch of Victorian gender stereotypes. A modern novel obviously couldn’t be as tone deaf as its source, but also had to remain reasonably true to the original story.

This dilemma was amplified too by the fact that this wasn’t just any story. Peter Pan is now a subsidiary of the Disney Industrial Complex - particularly the character of Tinker Bell, who is probably the face of Disney even more than Mickey Mouse. So this story had to remain true to the Disney franchise or risk alienating generations of kids in fairy dresses and green tunics. But it also had to reflect modern sensibilities, or it would be justly panned (no pun intended) for its shortcomings.

Barry and Pearson did do one thing right, in any case. They contracted with a Disney subsidiary to publish the book. Before I looked it up and discovered the connection, I had wondered exactly how hard it was to get the necessary permissions. I mean, the characters are in the public domain as far as Barrie’s originals. But you can bet your life that Disney would have played hardball with their best lawyers if the authors had just published without seeking licensing agreements. (I have some limited professional experience in Disney contracts and can testify that they don’t mess around. On a possibly related note, this book is really cool, and there is a website too.)

So, permissions negotiated, and idea pitched, Barry and Pearson wrote this book. I looked it up, and it does appear that the two were close friends long before the collaboration, so this wasn’t just a Disney marketing pairing.

How is the book? Well, pretty good, actually. It is well paced and plotted, the characters are memorable, the ideas fun and imaginative. The continuity with the previous works is mostly good. There are some small revisions (although I confess that I know that more from my research than from actually noticing while we were listening - except for the whole “no colonialism” thing) but they are pretty seamless.

The key goal of the book is to provide backstory, and it does. Where did the lost boys come from? Well, read it and find out. What is Pixie Dust, and where does it come from? How did Peter get to Neverland, and why doesn’t he grow old? What is the whole story behind Captain Hook and his hand? Well, that is what this book is about.

It turns out (in this fictional world) that Pixie Dust is really “Star Stuff,” a mysterious substance that makes up a small portion of meteorites. It has all kinds of powers, and because of this, it is highly corrupting. In this alternate history, many of the great minds of history were inspired by the star stuff - as were the most cruel and evil persons. The Starcatchers are a secret society devoted to capturing the star stuff before the “others” - those who would use it for evil - can get it. What they do with it is hinted at, but never fully explained in the book. Perhaps in one of the sequels?

A large chest of star stuff is being shipped on the same ship as Peter and the Lost Boys (who are orphans bound for a life of slavery) when it is attacked by the notorious pirate Black ‘Stache. The first mate of the ship (the Neverland) is also a nefarious sort. And then you have the natives, who have a backstory of their own. So that means essentially four different sides each vying for the treasure with motives of their own.

For the most part, the book is enjoyable. It goes down easily. If not anywhere near as profound as a Terry Pratchett book, or as eerie yet thoughtful as a Neil Gaiman book, it isn’t pure fluff either. It’s not boilerplate like so many Disney spinoff books for kids; it actually does have developed characters, moral dilemmas, and growth.

My one quibble is that there are times when it seems the authors self-consciously were writing a scene in the future movie. Set pieces are particularly common in the last third of the book, which I thought went on just a bit longer than necessary. Still, it’s a minor complaint. As much as anything, it probably reflects my preference for literary fiction over genre fiction. So call me a grumpy old man, and act accordingly.

But overall, a good book for traveling, entertaining without being a throwaway, and imaginative in its ideas. 


Okay, because this is Dave Barry, I have to talk about music. One of the running schticks that Barry uses is whenever a really bizarre phrase comes up, he mentions that it would be a great name for a band. (I may have used it myself in a post somewhere.) Anyway, my brother and I have entertained ourselves imagining ludicrous band names ever since.

Well, it turns out Barry actually has played in bands before. His first (which he mentions regularly) was “The Federal Duck.” Which, obviously, is an awesome band name. But he currently plays in a band with some other authors. They call themselves The Rock Bottom Remainders. (Other past or present members: Stephen King, Amy Tan, Ridley Pearson, Barbara Kingsolver, and Matt Groening.) They actually aren’t terrible for a basic cover band. Have a listen here, or check out their website.


  1. I could not get into this book, probably because I am too fond of the original, flawed with expected period-products though it is. Barrie implied so heavily that Peter is a barely-human creature himself that any story attempting to explain his origins in "ordinary boy" terms fails, I think, to get the point. It's a popular thing to do in our superhero-era, but I wish modern readers could just revel in mystery - possibly something the Victorians were more comfortable with than we are.

    Peter's not supposed to be explicable, he is a psychological enigma, the personification of Barrie's own thwarted, love-starved, arrested childhood, with all its dark complexity and fantastic colorful vision interwoven. So say I, at least.

    There hasn't been a single adaptation or spinoff that has managed to capture the essence of the original. The live action film with Jeremy Sumpter came the closest.

    1. I'll sympathize, as I also tend to be a book purist. I make an exception in this case for the same reason that I accept updates on mythology and fairy tales. Peter Pan (at least to me) has gone so far into our own version of mythology as to become separated from any one interpretation or work.

      I agree with you about the original, which I should probably re-read one of these days. I remember being fascinated with Wendy as a kid, and then with Peter as metaphor as you describe him as a teen.

    2. Fanfiction being one of my guilty pleasures, I can't really be grumpy about the reinterpretation of literary characters without being terribly hypocritical. Peter Pan positively begs to be re-examined(I mean, Barrie himself did it at least twice, from play to book and then to longer book), which I think proves its complexity as a story and his as a character. Maybe that's what really bothers me - none of the modern treatments give it enough gravitas, IMO. Disney's version certainly didn't, and it is terribly unfortunate that theirs is the one embedded in the popular consciousness. I'm definitely not averse to any attempt to shake that out of the collective imagination with other versions.

      If you or yours are into graphic novels at all, Renae de Liz is at work on a beautiful and very faithful graphic adaptation of Pan - including a lot of narration lifted straight from the original text, which I appreciate. You can look at a few pages here:

    3. That looks quite interesting, and the illustration style fits the "original with a modern vibe" idea.

      I suspect most of us...okay, those of us who care deeply about literature...often feel that characters are not given the gravitas (to use your word) that they deserve. I recall in particular the ghastly 1940ish interpretation of Pride and Prejudice. Talk about Disnification...

      Ah, the travails of the literary.