The idea that childhood is an attitude, a habit of the imagination as much as a developmental phase, took root in Britain in the half century before World War I. It was a golden age for children's literature and all things childlike: pageants, puppets, utopias. Adults played, too. The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame wrote notes to his wife in baby talk: "I eets wot I chooses." Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, reached the stage in 1904 and was a hit. No one wanted to grow up, especially those who were fully grown.
Peter Pan fittingly appears in A. S. Byatt's new novel, The Children’s Book, when Olive Wellwood, a popular children's book writer, takes her family to opening night. George Bernard Shaw could have had Olive and her circle in mind when he described the play as "ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people." Olive and her friends are smart, lively, and, to varying degrees, liberated—from Victorian doubt, as well as its moral code. They love the outdoors and handmade things. When they talk about morals, they talk about socialism or about romantic love. Yet when they look at the poor, they have trouble seeing people, and when the men look at women, they have trouble seeing past their lust. What Olive and her circle can't face, they turn into art, and because that art is didactic, it's often considered children's art. To them, children represent the better age that is surely coming and the innocence that surely came before. The Wellwood children and their friends are in fact intelligent, unique, and sensitive, and in some ways they are wiser than their parents. They play games but are curious about the real world. They struggle to balance their awareness of (and curiosity about) human cruelty with their desire for happy endings. The oldest, Tom, is a little different. A real Lost Boy, he knows too well that his enchanted childhood is a fiction, and he refuses to leave it.
Tom's story is a kind of tragic fairy tale, and Byatt does fairy tales wonderfully. But she is ambivalent about the Wellwoods' preoccupation with them—and we would do well to understand why. Set in England between 1895 and 1919 and thickly embroidered with period detail, The Children's Book depicts an era that may seem foreign to Americans, but its obsession with childhood resonates with our own. We, too, treat fantasy, comic-book adaptations, and, of course, Harry Potter as if they were, like Peter Pan, really for adults. Even books and movies aimed at "mature" audiences often capitalize on a collective tolerance for a prolonged immaturity. And isn't Judd Apatow grateful for that?
Olive's stories allow her to explore what she cannot say aloud. Our children's stories do the same for us. They give us the common framework to explore the sacred and profane that our fractured culture denies, and they cleanly separate the world into good and evil. Children's stories can be silly or infantilizing, but the best can educate the imagination. They're also fun. Still, there are dangers in a return to youth. There is such a thing as identifying too long with the sun. We slay dragons instead of facing what really scares us at our peril, as Olive and other parents discover. When the Great War began, productions of Peter Pan were staged with a line omitted: "To die will be an awfully big adventure."