Peter and the Starcatchers (Starcatchers Series #1) by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, illustrations by Greg Call. 480pp, RL 4

If JM Barrie's original, unadulterated, Peter Pan is a favorite of yours, I suggest you read Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean. If you enjoy the characters and setting from the original, but are not a purist, and, if you have time to read Barry and Pearson's series to see how Barrie's book is re-imagined then I definitely recommend Peter and the Starcatchers. At times is seems like a watery shadow of the original, but, if you are a fan of Pan by way of the 1953 animated Disney classic, this series, which calls itself a prequel to the meeting of Peter and Wendy and is published by Hyperion, a subsidary of Disney, you may enjoy the non-stop action and intermittent glimpses of people and places you remember from the movie.

According to the authors, this series was conceived when, more than five years ago, after a bedtime reading of JM Barrie's book, Ridley Pearson's daughter asked him how Peter met Captain Hook. This collaboration is heavy with action and dialogue and light on description and character development and is made up of very short chapters that jump back and forth between characters more often than the trunk of starstuff in the story changes hands. At the start of the story, the Peter of Peter and the Starcatchers is just a regular old orphan boy from St Norbert's Orphanage in London, however, over the course of the books his personality develops and changes due mainly to his exposure to starstuff. It's unclear exactly when this story takes place, but there are carriages, not cars and ships, not airplanes to ferry people about. Peter is not the pleasure loving child who thinks he is the center of the universe, as Barrie's Pan is, but instead a boy who, by virtue of the fact that he can spit the farthest, is leader of his pack. Not knowing his real age, he has a habit of claiming to be one year older than the oldest kid in the room. For reasons that are not mentioned, he and four other boys are being sent, by way of a ship named The Never Land, to the country of Rundoon. We learn later that they are to be sold as slaves in this country. Leaving port at the same time is the fine sailing ship, the Wasp. Both ships have been loaded with mysterious trunks, one of which Black Stache, Hook's name before he loses his hand at the end of the book, is after. Leonard Aster, Starcatcher and guard to the contents of the trunk is on board the Wasp. For safety, presumably, his daughter Molly and her governess, a woman with a name and personality straight out of one of Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants books, Mrs Bumbreak, are on board the Never Land. Also on the Never Land is second in command, the captain seems addle brained, so really he's first in command, is the character with the most evocative (but of what?) name in the book, Slank. Slank is an Other and also after the contents of one of the trunks.

What are Starcatchers, Others and what's in those trunks? It's all laid out in a pretty pedestrian manner when Molly delivers and expository speech to Peter midway through the book. This is after he has discovered that the trunk contains something that can make rats fly. In an effort to keep him from handling the dangerous contents of the trunk, which, when their powers are described sound a lot like illegal drugs, Molly spills the beans in a very adult way, at one point asking him to, "Bear with me a little longer... we're almost there." Molly, the Wendy stand-in, acts much more like a knowing school marm than the twelve-year-old she is supposed to be. And, in a nod to the current trend toward girl power, she saves Peter more than once. Most disturbing of all, Peter seems to have romantic feelings for Molly, even going so far as to initiate an awkward hug at the end of the book, as well as tingly feelings for the beautiful mermaid, Teacher. I'm not a total purist, but I think it goes against the basic nature of Pan as, to give romantic feelings, even if they are only nsacent, to Peter. It brings the story too much into the 21st century and removes all of the innocence of Barrie's book that has made it a classic. What Barrie's Peter wanted was a mother, someone to tell stories and do the Spring cleaning. Not a hug. And what does it add to the story to make Peter sweet on Molly? Nothing but a few extra pages, in my opinion.

I realize that I never answered the question I posed at the top of the previous paragraph. But really, the answer to what is in the trunk and why Molly and her father, and everyone else, are after it is so unimaginative and lacking in any sense of magic that I am loathe to repeat it. But, I will tell you anyway out of a Peter Pan-like sense of fairness. Starstuff, the earthbound byproduct of certain shooting stars, falls to earth - land or water - and is retrieved by the Starcatchers, both human and dolphin, so that its powers, which ultimately turn even those trying to use it for good into bad guys, can remain unadulterated. Apparently it can do all sorts of random things and works differently on everyone. And you don't even have to think happy thoughts. After many battles at sea between the Sea Devil, Stache's ship, the Wasp and the Never Land, as well as many exchanges of hand on the island where everyone ends up, the trunk lands in a lagoon where several fish are turned into sharp-toothed, grunting, stunningly beautiful mermaids who are also eager to maintain possession of the trunk as they rightly believe it is their Creator. Peter, working with the mermaids, saves the trunk, but not without touching it and gaining the permanent ability to fly but also the inability to ever grow up. Because of this, Peter now finds himself to be a "freak," his word, and chooses to stay on the island along with his four fellow orphans and the tribe of natives. The Mollusks, Peter and the Starcatchers' version of the highly un-politically correct Injuns of the original, are now a people ennobled by their brutal encounters with the British who enslave them and mercilessly taunt the island's wildlife, thus forcing them to enact a rule that requires all visitors to the island be fed to Mr Grin, the giant crocodile. Oh, and there's Smee, who's character is drawn in the exact bumbling image of his Disney movie counterpart, is along for comic relief, I guess. Really, though, he just seemed to be there so that Stache could bellow, "IDJIT," every few pages.

So, I think I've accounted for all of the originals who wanly made their way into this book except one. Instead of the brilliant fairies, born when a baby laughs for the first time as in Barrie's book, Pearson and Barry choose to bring Tinker Bell to life when, in some misguided act of fatherly-ness, Mr Aster decides to create her by shaking up a bird in a bag of starstuff so that Peter will have protection on the island. This is Peter, the boy who just cut off Stache's hand with his own knife and kept it, the boy who has fought Slank and his dumb giant, Little Richard, the boy who has made alliances with the mermaids and the Mollusks and he needs a little fairy to protect him. In one final, nice touch, however, Peter decides to name the island (an island the Mollusks have presumably already given a name...) Never Land when he finds a board from the ruined ship wash up on shore. The last picture in the book, which has fabulous pencil illustrations by Greg Call, is of a boyish Peter watching Molly and the starstuff sail back to England, the board from the Never Land on the ground near his feet.

As you can tell, I have mixed feelings about this book. I feel like Barry and Pearson could have easily written these books and made them interesting without riding so heavily on JM Barrie's coattails. And, while I have not read the whole series and I am sure that the characters develop more over the course of the books - George Darling, (father of Wendy, John and Michael) friend of Molly, appears in books 2 & 3 - the differences in the first one sometimes feel to glaring for me to go along for the ride. And, really, why do these three books hover around the 500 page count? With Peter Pan in Scarlet, Geraldine McCaughrean manages to pack adventure, character development and links to the original into a 310 page book that far exceeds what is found in the 480 pages it takes Barry and Pearson to play out their anemic story.

BUT: I am an adult. This is my adult opinion. I would not stop my child from reading this book, but, in the interest of promoting good literature as a means to providing my child with a foundation upon which she could then make her own choices as to what is worth reading, I would insist she read Peter Pan in Scarlet and, of course, Peter Pan, if she had not already.

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