Chances are, if you’re of a certain age, the name Peter Pan conjures images of an animated boy in green tights, Sandy Duncan swinging precariously on a wire, or—if you’re me—of a poorly constructed, probably flammable plastic Tinker Bell costume from the early ’80s. I did not rock that look, for the record.
Those enduring images, as playful, innocuous and in my case unfortunate as they are, contribute to making “Darling,” a modern-day YA retelling of the Peter Pan story by Chicago author Kayla Ancrum, so very unnerving. Ancrum’s Peter is no innocent, and once you meet him, you’ll never look at the Disneyfied version the same way again.
Peter Pan began in the early 1900s as a creation of J.M. Barrie, a Scottish novelist and playwright who based the character on a friend’s sons he later unofficially adopted.
Ancrum constructed “Darling” as a chapter-by-chapter adaptation of the original, staying true to the pacing that she admits may feel plodding to modern eyes. But the book’s action, the majority of which happens over one long fateful night, unfurls perfectly to build suspense and give readers the heebie jeebies.
Ancrum’s Wendy is a biracial teen whose family has moved from Hinsdale to Chicago. Her parents are equal parts overprotective and distant, and one of their reasons for moving is to grow their family beyond Wendy, an only child. Alone at home one night, Wendy meets Peter and “his ex-girlfriend” Tinkerbelle, and well, all hell breaks loose.
You’ll recognize many of the characters from the original and meet some new ones, including a pair of Native American siblings who replace the cringeworthy portrayals of Indigenous folks in the original. I also appreciated the matter-of-fact presence of queer characters—including motherly drag queens—something that was unheard of back when I was first reading YA in the 1990s. Captain Hook becomes a police detective, and even the menacing Crocodile has a role to play.
I had the honor of interviewing Ancrum for the Chicago Reader’s book club in July, and y’all, she’s a HOOT. (Follow her on Twitter if you don’t already.) It was fascinating to hear her describe her process for researching and writing the book, and provide historical context for the original—a time when children were expected to work and childhood as we now think of it was a luxury of the wealthy.
Ancrum chose Peter Pan to modernize because she loves that the original book was meant to be read by children one way and adults another. For children, the OG Peter Pan was what we all watched in the Disney version: fun, fantastical, full of possibility. But for adults, there’s an edge, something sinister lurking beneath the surface.
Ancrum is a masterful storyteller, and in “Darling,” that something sinister slinks closer to the surface with each chapter until an ending that will have you sleeping with the lights on for a while. This is a YA novel, but as I admitted during the book club, I don’t feel like I’m old enough to have read parts of it. It’s chilling because of the suspense Ancrum builds, the intensity of her characters, and the fact that it’s set in Chicago, blocks away from where I sit right now.
If you love YA or have a teen in your life who likes to be rattled or who is craving characters they can relate to, “Darling” is a must-read. Also on my reading list: Ancrum’s other novels, “The Wicker King” and “The Weight of the Stars.”
by Kayla Ancrum
288 Pages, Ages 14-18
The Reader book club’s next pick is “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic: Revised and Expanded Edition” by Jessica Hopper, and she’ll be interviewed by Reader senior writer Leor Galil on Aug. 26. Click here for tickets to their talk.