In the alchemy of children's fiction, there is no more potent formula than magic and growing up. Witness Harry Potter's dual struggle with mundane hormones and unearthly incantations. A century ago, it was Peter Pan's flat declaration that "Every time a child says, 'I don't believe in fairies,' there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead," that held childlike imaginations spellbound. As for growing up, Peter famously had neither the time nor the inclination. But whether he likes it or not, Peter is about to enter the 21st century, with the publication of Peter Pan in Scarlet, the official sequel to J.M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan. Last March, British author Geraldine McCaughrean was chosen from nearly 200 authors for the delicate task of relaunching Barrie's beloved flight of fantasy. "I hadn't realized it was such a big deal," says McCaughrean. "But I thought, No, I'm damned if I'm going to be daunted. I'll just enjoy myself."
Why McCaughrean? The identity of the other competing authors is a strict secret, but it's a safe bet that the trustees of London's Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (gosh), to whom Barrie bequeathed the royalties of Peter Pan in 1929, had more bankable names than hers to pick from. She jokes that fame has eluded her because her name is hard to pronounce (say Ma-cork-run) and has to be printed small to fit on the spine. Fame may find her in early October with the media blitz that will accompany Peter Pan in Scarlet when it's published in English in the U.K. and the U.S., and in translation in markets across Europe and Asia.
Low profile or not, the fact is McCaughrean, 54, is already a bona fide publishing phenomenon with more than 130 titles and a roster of literary awards to her long, unwieldy name. Born in suburban north London, McCaughrean has written for as long as she can remember. But it took a couple of false starts as a secretary and, disastrously, a schoolteacher before she settled into a 10-year stint as a subeditor on serial titles such as The Fisherman's Handbook and Great Composers. It was a no-nonsense school of writing that might demand a four-page story or a poem to accompany a leftover illustration by lunchtime. McCaughrean calls it "the best job I ever had," and the discipline has stood her in good stead since 1982 when she persuaded Oxford University Press to let her rewrite One Thousand and One Arabian Nights for young readers.
Since then, McCaughrean has spent much of her career recrafting the classics Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Melville for new generations. Her just-published version of Cyrano de Bergerac, mines Edmond Rostand's fin de siècle romcom for what it has to say about the power of language to transcend life's banalities, rather than for big-nose jokes. McCaughrean hopes that teenage lovers, raised on a diet of "wall-to-wall sex, violence and misery," will buy Cyrano for Valentine's Day. "But everybody," she says, "should be subverted by romance now and again."
McCaughrean's ease on literary giants' shoulders may have swayed the panel of Pan judges. But their description of her suggested treatment as "charmingly skewed" hints that they found an even better reason in the dark twists of McCaughrean's own imaginative fiction. Her 2004 novel, Not the End of the World, for example, describes in grim and blanchmaking detail life aboard the Ark with the zealous Noah, while all around the world drowns. And in last year's White Darkness, the best friend of Sym, a 14-year-old girl who's chronically shy and hard of hearing, is the famous (and long-dead) Antarctic explorer Lawrence Oates. When a dream-come-true trip to follow in his footsteps turns into a savage fight for survival on the ice, it's only the friend in Sym's head who stays true. "Children are just so much better at passing through the veil between the real world and an imaginary one," says McCaughrean, "which can feel just as real and very, very scary."
Though she recognizes the brilliance at the heart of Barrie's creation, McCaughrean calls Peter Pan an odd book. "And I most certainly wouldn't have written a sequel to it under any other circumstances," she says, referring to the fact that by 2007, 70 years after the author's death, the copyright on Peter Pan will have lapsed everywhere outside Britain where it enjoys perpetual protection. gosh has never disclosed, at Barrie's request, its income from stage and screen productions and other tie-ins, but the hospital is banking on a new Peter to plug the gap.
Barrie took seven years to turn his play Peter Pan into a best-selling novel; McCaughrean has delivered Peter Pan in Scarlet in as many months and though she's sworn to secrecy, she's itching to talk about it. There will be flying and fairy dust, of course. But 20 years after their flight to Neverland, Wendy is married, Michael a train driver, Tootles a judge in a wig. Trouble is brewing in Neverland, but as grown-ups, they cannot go back there until they discover how to be children once more. Can McCaughrean make Peter Pan fly again? If you believe she can, clap your hands.