Tinkering with Tinkerbell

A new prequel shows how Peter Pan learned to fly and how Molly forgot

"Peter and the Starcatchers" is a prequel with a tall order: Match the magic of "Peter Pan" without coasting on coattails a century old. It is, like so many children's classics, a tale of good and evil: cruelty versus innocence, evildoers versus near saints, and the blindness of adults versus the brilliance of children. It should have wide appeal to young readers, and with its excellent pacing, witty prose, and vivid settings, it promises to enchant - if occasionally disquiet - adults as well.

Molly is one of the world's few "Starcatchers," a force for good on a quest to keep stolen "starstuff" from the malevolent Others - this time, from the vicious King Zarboff III, who's awaiting a trunkful from England. The trunk, destined for Zarboff's island, is placed on her boat instead of her father's, and with pirates in hot pursuit, Molly becomes the unwitting keeper of the world's most precious substance.

Yet for girls, the book's more subtle theme may serve as a prequel to Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex." As the story begins, Molly is not only the heroine, but the leader. She's complex, compelling, and mysterious, with the power to fly and to change the world. Peter, in contrast, is an orphan who lacks Molly's eloquence and knowledge. Yet as the story goes on, Molly's power is not simply shared with Peter, but transferred to him. By the book's end, he's gained immortality, a fairy to attend to his every need, and a devoted mermaid who reduces Molly to a jealous rival. She ends the book bound for her father's home. Perhaps it's inevitable that Molly, soaring above oceans, hits a glass ceiling - but it's disappointing that even in a fantasy world, she can't break through.

Yet the tale still shines, with a tempo that never lags and a world that never ceases to amaze. To those who haven't read J.M. Barrie's original, no matter. And to fans of Peter Pan, the "Starcatcher" saga is a sparkling tale of origins - from Peter's magic to Tinkerbell's inception and the Captain's hook. Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson have woven a thrilling story of an icon in tights who thwarts the apocalypse and learns to fly.

Christina McCarroll is on the Monitor staff.

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