Colorado author Colleen Oakes reimagines Peter Pan in the deliciously dark Wendy Darling trilogy.EXPAND
Colorado author Colleen Oakes reimagines Peter Pan in the deliciously dark Wendy Darling trilogy.
Erin Burt

YA Author Colleen Oakes on Giving Peter Pan a Feminist Twist

Colorado author Colleen Oakes's Wendy Darling series introduces a Peter Pan who's a far cry from the impish cartoon you know from Disney. The Young Adult trilogy concludes with today's release of Shadow, wrapping up what its creator describes as "a darker take on Peter Pan, from Wendy's uniquely feminine perspective."

Oakes, who worked as a wedding floral designer before taking up her dream job as a full-time novelist, has penned a women's fiction series as well as another classic literature-inspired YA saga that gives Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts a backstory. Oakes, a homegrown Coloradan, lives in Broomfield; she'll celebrate the novel's launch at BookBar in Denver on Saturday, July 22. On the eve of the book's release, Westword chatted with Oakes about fitting feminism into the Victoria era and making the famed flying boy a villain.

Westword: This is the second series you’ve written that uses a classic work as source material. How did you land on the idea of doing a retelling of Peter Pan, and what was your research and adaptation process like?

Colleen Oakes: I had written Queen [of Hearts], and I was really inspired by the idea of side characters having their own stories; no one thinks they’re a side character in their own life. I knew after finishing Queen of Hearts that I wanted to do Wendy.... The story begins and ends with Wendy, and yet she’s a side character. There’s lots of interesting ideas about gender roles in Peter Pan. They assume she’s going to be the mother of all these feral boys, and she’s only thirteen in the original.

Peter Pan himself was so intriguing, and I thought, "There’s so much here." There’s a darkness to Peter Pan, if you're reading the book as an adult. I was floored by the mature circumstances that you visit and these strange things that are in the original that you don’t pick up as a child, like when Peter says he’s going to "thin out" the Lost Boys: What is that about? I really wanted to visit this darkness that was an undercurrent in the original text, which I read again before starting.

There are so many questions about Peter and his existence. "What does it mean to never age?” was a big question for me in writing this book. What does it look like to maybe not mature and not age? You have your Edward Cullens, who has matured even though he’s still sixteen. But what does it look like if you’re a sixteen-year-old for eternity? Sixteen-year-olds are a rare breed, and to be sixteen for so long would cause all sorts of issues. I wanted to talk about that, and also about the more feminist side of Peter Pan and what it’s like to be a female in feral Neverland.

Initially, the idea of a feminist Peter Pan surprised me, because in the source material, Peter and the boys are always the center of gravity, Wendy’s gendered role as this mother figure is so central to her character, and it’s set in an era with very restrictive ideas about the role of women. How did you reconcile that source material with Wendy becoming a feminist heroine?

Wendy’s a really interesting feminist story. Coming off of Queen, which is about this woman marching with an army, full of rage, I wanted someone who embodies the best things about females in another sense. So Wendy, as opposed to Dinah, my other lead character, is kind, she is generous, she cares for her family, she’s faithful, she’s brave, but she’s not a person who picks up a sword.

I noticed, in the reviews of earlier books in the series, people had said, "When is Wendy going to become a warrior?" I thought, "This is an interesting time to talk about this." You don’t need to be — in YA in particular — a warrior to be a feminist hero. That just comes from being a strong female and standing up for your beliefs and standing up for others. I wanted to explore that without her becoming a warrior. Wendy is a terrible fighter, and she never becomes a good one; that’s never in her wheelhouse.

I love my Katnisses [from Hunger Games] and my Tris Priors [from Divergent], but I also like the Hermiones [from Harry Potter] of the world. And Wendy is definitely a Hermione-type character. Her goodness comes from within rather than this physical strength that is so valued in male culture, so this was a great vehicle to explore that.

It's a fitting idea to look at in a YA novel, because there are so many big cultural phenomena that are coming from YA, and yet it seems that often people dismiss the genre because the opinions of teen girls aren’t seen as worthwhile. I feel so annoyed by that perception.

I feel like YA gets a lot of flak, but YA is running the business right now. Aside from mystery, it’s the most successful genre of book. And it’s shaping pop culture; look at Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games.... It’s not just for teen girls, and even if it is just for teen girls, there’s nothing wrong with that. I see readers of all different types, and I see a lot of adults reading YA because it’s getting so good these days. YA is a strong genre.

How was wrapping up a series? Was it harder than the first two?

The middle book, Seas, was the hardest to write. That is my book, of all my books I’ve ever written, that I struggled with the most, and it’s also the book of which I am most proud. After finishing Seas, I thought, "Wow, now I get to do this fun finale." I had seen the climax of the book for years, so to get to write these scenes that I’ve seen in my head for so long is so satisfying. Shadow came together really easily; Seas was hard. In retrospect, I was like, "It’ll be so great; she’ll be on Captain Hook’s ship. That’s going to be such a fun sophomore book!" But I didn’t think, "Oh, wow, you’re limited to a ship. That’s really small when you think about it. There’s only so many ways you can describe water before you start getting repetitive." I think that was a good writer stretch for me, and it made writing Shadow a lot easier.

I did cry at the end when I finished Shadow, because it’s a very emotional ending.

I definitely shed a few tears, too.

That makes me happy. That’s what I like to hear. I live on reader tears. That’s my battery life.

Was the ending your favorite scene to write?

I did like the river scene. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. That was very fun to write and a long time coming. I also loved writing the ending; the ending was very cathartic for me but so right. One of my favorite books is Jodi Picoult's My Sister’s Keeper. I remembered when I read that book that I thought, "What a hard ending, but what a perfect ending." I wanted that with Wendy. I wanted a tragic but justified ending.

Is there a question you'd love to be asked or anything else you want to share?

I do like that Wendy Darling deals with domestic abuse. One of the most meaningful interactions I had was with a woman who’s a fan, and she also works with domestic-abuse victims. She told me that she's started using Wendy Darling for some of her younger clients because it features a domestic-abuse relationship with Tink and a little bit with Wendy. She said it’s a perfect example that you can still be attracted to your abuser, and that’s something that’s not talked about in domestic abuse. The fact that Tink keeps coming back again and again whereas Wendy separates and knows that this is not okay – it’s like two sides of the same coin. That was so meaningful to hear, and it made me think, "Oh, my gosh, this is why I write."

Colleen Oakes's final installment in the Queen of Hearts series, War of the Cards, is slated for publication by HarperCollins on November 7. After that, she's working on a YA thriller, The Black Coats. Set in Texas, the novel centers on a group of teens recruited by a matriarchal organization that doles out vigilante justice to men who hurt women. That book hits shelves in 2019. For more information on Oakes and her writing, visit colleenoakes.com. At 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 22, you can meet her at BookBar, 4280 Tennyson Street, 303-284-0194.

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