I am full of emotion as I write this introduction. First: my heart brims with joy to be hosting Cynthia Leitich Smith in celebration of her latest middle grade novel, Sisters of the Neversea (Heartdrum). Cynthia represents the very best in the kidlit community: she has long been a champion of others’ work; she is incredibly generous with information and guidance; and she is a very fine writer. A bestselling author and the 2021 NSK Neustadt Laureate, she also serves as author-curator of Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s books. And she is a kind human being; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been the beneficiary of her pep talks. I really appreciate her reminder to ask ourselves what new thing we’re bringing to familiar stories.
Sisters of the Neversea is graced by a stunning cover, created by Floyd Cooper. And that leads me to the bittersweet part of this introduction. The children’s literature community suffered another tremendous loss this week with Floyd’s passing. He touched so many lives and his loss is felt intensely. I am grateful for his lovely work which will continue to touch readers.
J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, also known as Peter Pan, has been significantly re-envisioned for the screen, the stage, and the page countless times.
My favorite depictions of the title characters, Peter Pan and Wendy Darling, were brought to life by legendary actors Robin Williams and Maggie Smith, as a grown-up Peter—an attorney, no less—and Granny Wendy in the major motion picture “Hook.”
When writers approach a retelling or reinvention, we tend to ask ourselves: What fresh twist(s) do I have to bring to the narrative? Or, in this case, we might ask, “Does the world really need another Peter Pan story, and if so, why?”
For “Hook” director Steven Spielberg, that new take was reversing a core element of Peter’s mythology, showcasing “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” as late 20th century adult.
My next book, Sisters of the Neversea (Heartdrum, June 2021), likewise bridges elements of Barrie’s story to a modern-day setting. So, what fresh twist did I bring? What did I have to say? And was it sufficiently compelling or intriguing to captivate young readers? I can only hope so!
Of course, each writer is foremost an individual. If five hundred middle-grade novelists embarked on revisiting Barrie’s world, the result would be five hundred different manifestations, each with their own sparkle.
But more personally, my inner young reader had lingering questions about Peter Pan, many of them related to Native identity.
Neverland is supposed to be an island of magic and supernatural wonders—mermaids, fairies, a boy who can fly. As a child, I could reason out that the storybook pirates sailed there. Perhaps a mighty storm blew the Jolly Roger into uncharted waters.
But what of the Native people, those Peter regarded as potential friends, foes, and playmates? How did they find themselves so far from their homeland, literally off-continent? Why did they behave in such strange ways? Did British children of Barrie’s era consider Indians to be somehow otherworldly? Did the author himself?
My fresh twist is all about crafting a version of the island that answers those questions and more, one that grounds the Native characters with respectful tribal specificity in present day and in their humanity.
My springboard was the original secondary character known as Tiger Lily, a Native girl. Beyond that, taking in the girl characters as a group—Tiger Lily, Tinker Bell, the mermaids, and of course heroic Wendy—I couldn’t help but wonder: Why were all of them in love with Peter? Certainly, he possessed his impish charms, but wow! No wonder he was a bit full of himself.
That said, it may come as no surprise that Sisters of the Neversea is centered on the girls and women of Neverland and its surrounding waters. Those heroes include Lily Roberts, a Muscogee Creek girl from today’s Tulsa suburbs and Wendy Darling, a white British girl of the same family.
Guided by Peter Pan’s shadow, Lily must overcome her fears and fly to Neverland to rescue her imaginative stepsister Wendy Darling and their shared little brother Michael. Along the way, they encounter merfolk and fairies, wild beasts, a flying boy, and their own, more personal foibles.
Sisters of the Neversea is a celebration of friendship, fairy dust, and the love among children of blended families, one that I hope fully invites young readers to join them in page-turning adventure.
Cynthia Leitich Smith is the 2021 NSK Neustadt Laureate and a New York Times bestselling author of books for young readers, including HEARTS UNBROKEN, which won the American Indian Library Association’s Youth Literature Award. Her 2021 releases are the middle grade anthology ANCESTOR APPROVED: INTERTRIBAL STORIES FOR KIDS and novel SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA.
She is also the author-curator of Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books, and serves as the Katherine Paterson Inaugural Endowed Chair on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cynthia is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and lives in Austin, Texas.