“What’s your favourite book and why?”
I’m at a city writers’ group and this is the icebreaker the organiser has given us to get to know each other.
Without hesitation, my partner launches into a passionate description of a French existentialist novella.
I’m a writer. I should have a clear answer for this, I think.
My hamster mind treads the wheel of classics from my English lit classes at uni.
No clear answer.
I spin through the myriads of other titles I’ve stumbled across. Treasures in libraries and second hand bookshops. Epiphanies in the various cities where I’d lived as an adult.
But it’s only when I go back further that the wheel comes to an abrupt halt.
What is it about our favourite children’s books that stays with us so long?
With Peter Pan, it’s certainly not the narrative style. Rereading it is an adult, I find J. M. Barrie’s interjections condescending; his tone sometimes smug. I’m not impressed with the gender stereotypes either.
But Peter Pan is a product of its time.
Children don’t notice these things. They’re too absorbed with the characters and the story. When you’ve only been alive for a few years, there’s something fresh and magical about any new world.
That’s not to say adult books can’t have the same effect.
But it’s often much harder.
The closest I’ve come as an adult is when I travelled overseas for the first time.
The fact that I settled on Peter Pan as my favourite got me thinking. What impact had it had on me? Could I use it to tap into future writing projects?
If you’re struggling to move forward with your writing, try looking back. Our favourite books are often the inspiration behind our current desire to write creatively — even if we’re not interested in writing for kids.
Take a moment to think about the book (or books) you loved as a child.
Below are five writing prompts to help you get started. At the end of each section, I’ve included some extra questions to encourage you to dig deeper.
1. Why did you love it?
Which aspects of your book intrigued you when you were a kid?
For me, it was the character of Peter. I was especially taken with Peter’s description of how he ran away the day he was born:
“It was because I heard father and mother,” he explained in a low voice, “talking about what I was to be when I became a man.” He was extraordinarily agitated now. “I don’t want ever to be a man,” he said with passion. “I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. So I ran away to Kensington Gardens and lived a long long time among the fairies.” — Chapter III, Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
My 7-year-old mind didn’t seem to take any issue with a newborn baby setting off to Neverland on its own. I was too impressed by Peter’s fierce sense of independence.
Another scene that made a strong impression on me is when Peter and Wendy are trapped on Marooners’ Rock in the Mermaids’ Lagoon.
The tide is rising.
Michael’s kite drifts by, its tail dangling in the water.
But it will only hold one.
Peter gallantly offers it to Wendy, claiming that:
As an adult, I see a scared kid trying to put on a brave face. As a kid, I was awed by his apparent fearlessness.
I always identified more with Peter than with Wendy.
There was a part of me that wished he would fly through my window and take me away on adventures.
But I wanted to help him fight pirates. I had no interest in being his mother!
It wasn’t only Peter. I was in love with Neverland itself. My first copy of Peter Panhad a colourful map featuring all the locations in the story.
Questions to explore: What part of your favourite book had the biggest impact on you as a child? Was it a particular character? A scene? The setting? Why did it leave such a strong impression? Which qualities, behaviours, situations or places did you identify with?
2. How did it influence your past?
For this question, start with your childhood. Then think about your adult past too.
My love of Peter Pan led to lots of make-believe games with my little brother. One involved leaping off the couch and trying to fly. In another, we would re-enact the final dual between Peter and Captain Hook with garden stakes.
It also sparked a love of drawing maps and writing my own fantasy stories. This continued into my teenage years.
As soon as I finished university, I tried a different kind of flying. Heading overseas, I sought adventures in new countries. I trained as an English Language Teacher. Spain, with its romantic language and exotic culture, became my own Neverland for a while.
Questions to explore: Think about the strongest feelings and desires you experienced as a child. Sometimes these stay with us. How has your favourite children’s book shaped your life? Think about your life experiences, decisions and interests.
3. What values from this story can you bring into your adult life?
In Peter Pan, the lost boys are the children who fall out of their prams in Kensington Gardens. If they’re not claimed in seven days, the fairies send them to Neverland to live with Peter.
If you responded to the last prompt, you might find that mixed feelings resurface. There might be things you wanted to do in your life, but you suppressed them because, well, adult life happened.
In a way, many of us become lost boys and girls when we grow up.
I went through periods when I became consumed by self-doubt and stopped writing.
Even now, although I write regularly, there are still times when adult life gets in the way. I find that the best strategy to push through this is to recultivate Peter Pan’s sense of play.
We don’t have to be adults all the time. We all have responsibilities and we all have to grow up, but sometimes it’s OK to escape for a bit in between. It’s not about being self-indulgent. It’s about self-preservation and finding ways to reconnect with the creative kids we used to be.
Here a few things I do to ‘run away’:
· Hang out with my friends’ children
· Explore new places in and around my city
· Revisit childhood activities
(At the moment, my favourite one is walking barefoot along the beach).
Questions to explore: What values from your favourite book could you bring into your life now? These could include activities, behaviours or experiences.
4. How has this book informed your writing so far?
Think about the plots, themes, settings and characters that you loved. There’s a good chance that these have found their way into your adult work without you realizing. Consider any non-fiction you’ve written too.
My passion for adventure stories led me to experiment with travel writing for a while.
The theme of overcoming fears features in a lot of my blog posts.
And when I write fiction, I’m a big fan of strong, independent characters who go to great lengths to hide their vulnerability.
Questions to explore: What keeps turning up in your writing? Go beyond creative writing and think about any kind of writing you do. For instance, if you comment on a social media posts, what really gets you fired up?
5. How could it inform your writing going forward?
Revisiting your favourite children’s books can energize any kind of creative writing project. Perhaps you want to pen short stories, write your memoir or put together inspiring blog posts.
Questions to explore: Think about your answers so far. Can you see any patterns or common themes? Could you use any of them to revitalise a piece of writing you’re struggling with? Or could they be the inspiration for a new project?