Guest Interview: Kathi Appelt & Cynthia Leitich Smith on Rebirth in the Neversea

By Kathi Appelt

This interview includes plot spoilers for Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Heartdrum, June 1, 2021). You may want to bookmark and return to it after reading the story.

Cover art by Floyd Cooper (Muscogee); from the promotional copy:

Lily and Wendy have been best friends since they became stepsisters. But with their feuding parents planning to spend the summer apart, what will become of their family—and their friendship?

Little do they know that a mysterious boy has been watching them from the oak tree outside their window. A boy who intends to take them away from home for good, to an island of wild animals, Merfolk, Fairies, and kidnapped children.

A boy who calls himself Peter Pan.

Cynthia, you started out in picture books with Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000, Heartdrum, 2021), then quickly moved to young adult, first with Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001)(Heartdrum, 2021), then with your Tantalize series and its spinoff Feral trilogy (Candlewick, 2007-2018), and more recently with Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, 2018, 2020). And squeezed in there, you did write the chapter book Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002), too. But with that exception, you’ve been writing for either the very young or for teenagers. Which of course, leads me to my first question: What led you to visit middle grade?

As a library kid, I often gravitated to the Newbery shelf, and so my early go-to vision of a children’s book was the middle grade novel per se. However, I apparently have many inner children (and teens), so my protagonists have varied in age, which is one of the factors taken into consideration in deciding format and age-market categories.

That said, I have two middle grade books out this year—Sisters of the Neversea (Heartdrum, 2021) and Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories For Kids (Heartdrum, 2021), a powwow-centered collection for which I served as the anthologist and to which I contributed one of the short stories.

The short story format is my creative touchstone—a wonderful end unto itself and a venue for experimentation. Over the years, I’ve contributed short fiction to several YA collections and to middle grade anthologies like Period Pieces, edited by Erzsi Deàk and Kristin Litchman (HarperCollins, 2003); In My Grandmother’s House, edited and illustrated by Bonnie Christensen (HarperCollins, 2003), and The Hero Next Door, edited by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (Random House, 2019, 2021).

Peter Pan! In your author’s note, you write about your childhood confusion regarding this enduring story. First published in 1911 as a novel, it’s somehow withstood the vagaries of time, despite being extremely harmful when it comes to the depiction of Native Americans. There are reasons to be enchanted by the story, and at the same time reasons to be hurt. It seems like you were willing to address the hurtful parts in light of the magical parts. Both must have spoken to you, yes? Can you talk about this dichotomy?

I am fascinated by literary reinvention. Too many people disparage all tropes—common literary devices or motifs—but there’s nothing wrong with most of them. It’s all in the storyteller’s fresh twist.

Beyond that, a trope cannot be dismissed as cliché if reimagined by a creator who’s from an underrepresented community and drawing on their related sensibility and lived experiences. Consider: How many books by Native children’s authors feature fairies or storybook pirates or mermaids or portals or flying people? How many are Robinsonades? How can stories that scarcely exist be dismissed as overdone? I am a fan of all of those tropes and had a fresh twist in mind for each of them.

Still, what do with Barrie’s Peter and Wendy AKA Peter Pan?

The problematic aspects of Barrie’s depiction of Native people are well-trodden ground in literary discourse. You’ll find film retellings that erase those characters or combine stereotypical, Hollywood Indian imagery with the Lost Boys.

My response is radical in its obviousness: Write the Native people as tribally specific, three-dimensional human beings. As realistic, contemporary kids. It’s the setting, magic and situation that are fantastical. There’s nothing otherworldly about being Native. We’ve always been in this world, we’re here now, and we always will be.

Beyond that, Native identity wasn’t the only representation that I reconfigured. Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy—along with most of the subsequent retellings—also casts disability as villainy. In my Neverland, “Hook” is no longer shorthand for “malevolent” or “murderous.” What’s more, my girl characters…Lily, Wendy, Belle, the mermaids… They deserved more than to vie for the affections of a boy who refused to grow up.

The storyline also clearly addresses the harm done by children’s narratives that draw on stereotypes. That said, Sisters of the Neversea is by no means simply a veiled treatise of literary criticism. It’s an adventure-fantasy for middle graders, so those considerations informed the world and character building. But the heart of the story is the love in blended and found families.

Most of us—and I’m speaking largely for myself here—came to Peter Pan via Walt Disney and his animated film feature. And I also remember watching a televised version starring Mary Martin, who flew across the stage yearly on NBC. Both of those versions mostly—okay, totally—watered down Peter’s more negative attributes, especially the murderous tendencies that Barrie invested in him in the original story. (There’s a quaint anecdote about Barrie being disappointed with the statue of Peter in Kensington Gardens in London because the sculptor did not adequately capture Peter’s menacing qualities). So, I was surprised when you gave us the more original Peter. But you also gave us something of an origin story, not quite a changeling story—of a fairy stealing a boy—but close. Can you talk about that?

Photo by Anton Ivanov.

If I’m engaging with the writing of another author, that process begins with pondering their original work, and then I may take into consideration what additional voices have had to say about it.

But yes, the foundational literary Peter is fearsome indeed. In fact, when it comes to reinventions, arguably the one most spot-on was director Joel Schumacher in his 1987 vampire flick, “Lost Boys.” Boil down Barrie’s narrative, and essentially, you’ve got an eternally young magical being who swoops into the bedroom windows of the innocent and whisks them away to his own domain. Yikes.

Though my Peter’s sword may boast a sharp edge (in threat, if not deed), he isn’t an otherworldly monster. He’s an entirely human boy, being slowly corrupted by magic—by power—that he’s not equipped to handle. And yet, he’s still a child, and therefore redeemable. We never give up on children.

In unpacking all that, it was part of my job as storyteller to figure out how Peter had become so dastardly and how he could work to redeem himself, growing and changing for the better.

I also want to ask you specifically about the role that forgetting plays here. You give us the Lost who have almost completely forgotten where they came from. Then there is the scene with Michael who, like in Barrie’s version, most shockingly forgets who Wendy is, mistaking her for their mother. It is the Native kids who are able to most firmly remember who they are, and where they came from, which seems so important to me.

Though they’ve all been displaced, the Native kids become the keys to finding their ways out of Neverland. And most interestingly, when it comes to remembering, they are “led” by a memory—Clifford, a Seminole man who previously lived (and died) on the island. Clifford is also the link to the merfolk. So, I know that forgetting was an essential element in the Barrie book, but you’ve used it in a wholly different way I think. Can you talk about that?

It’s one thing for a child to long to escape their daily life, to have real or imagined adventures—that’s part and parcel of the enduring appeal of Neverland. It’s something else to take a child away from their family and community and repurpose them into what you want for your own benefit. Both dynamics are, to varying degrees, in play in the story. (To his credit, Barrie does address the costs to those loved ones left behind and to the children’s longing for home.)

For me, the construct was vaguely reminiscent of the U.S. federal boarding schools/Canadian residential schools era of colonization in which generations of Native and First Nations children were separated from their families, Nations, and cultures.

Creative inspiration image (not from book)

In my novel, the fantastical construct is that the more Fairy dust to which one is exposed, the more they forget themselves in favor of embracing life on the island and, thereby, Peter’s whims. Consequently, the Lost in the Home Under the Ground—who are exposed to Belle’s dust on a frequent basis—are more severely affected. The Native kids in their treehouse, who receive only an initial dose to get them to the island, are much less so. Like boarding-school survivors, the latter maintain their sense of selves by forging intertribal friendships and holding onto their shared traditional values. That said, of course the non-Native kids have positive cultural touchstones of their own, too, some of which are joyfully shared by all the children.

So, I don’t mean to overstate this. Sisters of the Neversea is by no means my literary response to the boarding schools or the intergenerational trauma they continue to cause. Rather, my sensibility as a writer is informed and influenced by that history.

One of the things that I love about this story is the ensemble cast. While your primary characters are Lily and Wendy, and we see most of the story through their eyes, your omniscient narrator has cast a wider net than just those two. You’ve used it to give your key characters more grounding, even in a place as “otherworldly” as Neverland. Would you tell us a little more about your decision, as a storyteller, to use that point of view?

Up until this point, I’ve tended to write in third person limited for children and first person or first person alternating for teens—the latter largely began as an exercise in crafting various voices and using the limited first-person lens to facilitate suspense. This is my only omniscient book so far.

So, why this decision now? I was reframing and expanding fantasy constructs and characters originally birthed as two-dimensional archetypes. Or, in other words, I was stretching young readers, hopefully for the better.

Why not also stretch myself and honor fairy-tale convention by setting forth a slightly intrusive, confiding narrator to metaphorically steer us through the Neverseas? As you say, it facilitated world and character building while also acting as literary bridge to the oral storytelling traditions that respectively influenced both Barrie’s writing and my own.

Fairytale forest inspiration image by Tomertu.

The line between what is real and what is not underlies so much of your story, and it feels as if the uncertainty about the parents—the Darling parents—serves to push the girls to their separate corners, and ultimately brings them back together. This is perhaps the newest thing that you brought to the story. It’s The Essential Cynthia.

Wendy prefers to look the other way, pretend that all will be well, and Lily is the rational, just-the-facts, opposite. And yet, neither of them can actually know what will happen, which is a great reason to fly away, right? The whole idea of clinging to childhood, of never growing up, is so much the way that a child might feel—that if they just stay little and young, everything will remain the same. Parents will love each other and not grow apart. Baby brothers will always be adorable. Tiger cubs won’t grow into tigers. At the same time, there is value is growing up, in coming to see the world as it is rather than what we wish. Can you talk about why you presented the story this way?

They’re together on the same journey—Lily and Wendy. They’re mirror characters who grow to recognize and appreciate their shared qualities over time. Ideally, we all mature to face reality without surrendering our sense of wonder.

We navigate our lives through our memories, each moment, and our dreams for the future. It’s by drawing on all that alongside our dearest loved ones that we strive for, hopefully achieve and celebrate our potential together.

A J.M. Barrie tribute stamp, circa May. 2002. Photo by Sergey Goryachev.

Cynsational Notes

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.

Cynthia and Kathi

Kathi Appelt is the New York Times bestselling author of more than forty books for children and young adults. Her first novel, The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008), was named a National Book Award Finalist, a Newbery Honor Book, and the PEN USA Literature for Children Award. Her novel The True Blue Scouts Of Sugar Man Swamp (Atheneum, 2014) was named a National Book Award Finalist and won the Green Earth Award, the Texas Institute of Letters Award, and the Judy Lopez Memorial Award.

Angel Thieves (Atheneum, 2019), Kathi’s newest book, is her first young adult novel. She and her husband Ken live in College Station, Texas with six adorable cats, Django, Peach, Mingus, Chica, Jazz and Ace.