A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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“We reminded them of what peace was like, of lives which were not bound up with destruction.”

A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Published 1959 by Secker & Warburg

Classics/Young Adult
Format: paperback; 204 pages
Also By This Author: Peace Breaks Out, Phineas
Goodreads | Amazon

My Rating: 4/5 

Synopsis:

Set at a boys boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace is a harrowing and luminous parable of the dark side of adolescence. Gene is a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas is a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happens between the two friends one summer, like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys and their world.

Thoughts:

I first read A Separate Peace nearly 14 years ago while I was in 7th grade. I’ve always felt like my assigned reading choices in school were generally interesting books that made a long-lasting impact on me; A Separate Peace is no exception. Do you ever reread books you haven’t read in ages and find yourself thinking, “I do not remember imagining it this way”? For me it was more about remembering the characters differently.

Gene and Phineas are two 16-year-old boys living at an all-boys prep school, where most of the students and staff are affected by the outbreak of WWII. Gene and Phineas, along with a few other students, create the “Super Suicide Society,” where the whole goal is to do daring and rule-breaking stunts. This club, and the leadership of Phineas, reflect the escape the boys try to make from the reality of war. The irony, however, is that the boys have brought the war into their club.

Before I reread this book, I had the mindset that Phineas was that one friend we all have who always tries to “one up” us in everything. You know who I’m talking about–you do well on a test, they do better; you feel like you’re really good in a sport or hobby, they show you how much more talented they are (and make it look effortless); you receive an awesome present from someone, they tell you that they got one once and it just wasn’t that great. Well, when I reread this novel, I realized that Phineas is not that “one-upper” friend at all. Which means that I obviously relate a lot to Gene, who creates this whole unspoken competition between himself and Phineas.

I think a lot of people can relate to the characters and circumstances in this novel, even though it takes place in the early 1940s. That’s why this book had so much impact on me when I was 12 and when I was 25; you can put those themes into any context and will still be able to empathize with the characters.

Read This Book If…:

…you enjoy short, powerful novels.
…you like reading historical, young adult books that deal with mature subject matter.
…you’re intrigued by themes of war, childhood innocence, jealousy, and forgiveness.

Final Musings:

One of the things I love most about these short & powerful novels is that they always have so many good quotes to reflect on!

“Because it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.”

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“Come Away, Come Away!”: J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

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Artwork by Nicholas Jackson

“You just think of lovely wonderful thoughts,” Peter explained, “and they lift you up in the air.”


“After the first production I had to add something to the play at the request of the parents…about no one being able to fly until the fairy dust had been blown on him; so many children having gone home and tried it from their beds and needed surgical attention.” – J.M. Barrie

Peter Pan (originally Peter and Wendy) by J.M. Barrie
Published Oct. 11, 1911 by Hodder & Stoughton
Children’s/Young Adult Fantasy
Format: Annotated hardcover; 182 pages
Also By This Author: The Little White Bird, Peter Pan (play), The Admirable Crichton
Goodreads | Amazon
Rating: 5/5

Synopsis:

Peter Pan, the book based on J.M. Barrie’s famous play, is filled with unforgettable characters: Peter Pan, the boy who would not grow up; the fairy, Tinker Bell; the evil pirate, Captain Hook; and the three children–Wendy, John, and Michael–who fly off with Peter Pan to Neverland, where they meet Indians and pirates and a crocodile that ticks. 

(This review is spoiler free)

Thoughts:

What is there left to be said about the story of Peter Pan, the Darling children, and Neverland? I feel as if this beautiful story about children who don’t want to grow up has been analyzed, digested, and adapted more times than anyone can count, but clearly there is a reason for that: Peter Pan is an enduring masterpiece. So instead of analyzing it, I just want to share a few of the things that struck me the most while reading this book.

Firstly, I checked out my library’s copy of The Annotated Peter Pan, and I’m really tempted to buy a copy for myself. It has so much information about J.M. Barrie, the early productions of the play, hundreds of footnotes (which is where I found that quote from Barrie about the fairy dust), and some chapters on Peter Pan adaptations, spin-offs, and productions.

The Introduction by Editor Maria Tatar included this similarity between Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which echoed my own feelings while reading the novel:

[Dorothy], Huck, and Peter have won us over with their love of adventure, their streaks of poetry, their wide-eyed and wise innocence, and their deep appreciation of what it means to be alive. They all refuse to grow up and tarnish their sense of wonder and openness to new experiences.

Reading this book as an adult, I noticed myself trying to rationalize things or figure out a logical solution to the characters’ conflicts, but when I tried to see Peter Pan and the world of Neverland through the eyes of the Darling children, I began to feel inspired and light-hearted again. This is the exact reason why I enjoy reading children’s and YA literature. Of course every genre deals with serious subject matter, I am not disputing that, but I particularly love reading tales from the POV of a child or adolescent; experiencing situations from the eyes of a younger person has always been eye-opening to me.

Another aspect of the novel that made a big impression on me was Barrie’s style of writing. His sense of humor is both subtle and cheeky, and it’s most concentrated in his descriptions of the characters. One of my favorite examples of this is from a passage about Peter Pan’s imagination:

The difference between him and the other boys at such a time was that they knew it was make-believe, while to him make-believe and true were exactly the same thing. This sometimes troubled them, as when they had to make-believe that they had had their dinners.

And another one about Captain Hook being temporarily overcome by softness:

There was a break in his voice, as if for a moment he recalled innocent days when–but he brushed away his weakness with his hook.

Speaking of the characters, every film adaptation I have seen of Peter Pan has done an excellent job at keeping the characters pure to their original depictions. I grew up watching both Hook and Disney’s animated version of Peter Pan, and I was easily able to resonate each of the film characters with their print versions. Captain Hook seemed both hauntingly intimidating and ironically frightful while Tinkerbell was as mischievous as ever.

I loved how the last chapter concluded everything nicely for our characters, although in such a short and intense way that it definitely brought tears to my eyes. This is one of those books that stays with you a while after you finish the last page; you’ll reflect on things in a bittersweet or inspirational way.

Read This Book If…:

…you have an active imagination
…you’re always up for an adventure!
…you’re not ready to grow up (or you have grown up, and you wish you hadn’t)
…you need to refresh your sense of wonder and embrace the unexpected

Final Musings:

I dearly loved this book, in a different way than I probably would have if I had read it as a child. The themes that resonated with me the most weren’t about the pirates or the fairies, but about living for the moment, staying curious and interested, and always being ready to face the unexpected (as impossible as that sounds). And this wonderful story reminded me that sometimes we have to pause and take a look at the things around us, to reflect on where we are and how we got there.

Odd things happen to all of us on our way through life without our noticing for a time that they have happened.

To Kill a Mockingbird & Childhood Innocence

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The sixth grade seemed to please him from the beginning: he went through a brief Egyptian Period that baffled me – he tried to walk flat a great deal, sticking one arm in front of him and one in back of him, putting one foot behind the other. He declared Egyptians walked that way; I said if they did I didn’t see how they got anything done, but Jem said they accomplished more than the Americans ever did, they invented toilet paper and perpetual embalming, and asked where would we be today if they hadn’t? Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Published July 1960 by J.B. Lippincott & Co.
Classic/Young Adult
Format: Paperback-324 pages
Goodreads | Amazon
My Rating: 5/5

One of my favorite parts about this novel was that it’s told from the point of view of a 6-year-old girl, so every now and then we get to enjoy hilarious commentaries like this one about the Egyptians. Scout’s childhood perspective serves more than to amuse us, however. Her innocence and unprejudiced outlook on life brings us emotional conviction, but one that inspires hope in us instead of guilt or regret. To Kill a Mockingbird takes place shortly before the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, so there is a great deal of racial tension going on that is presented through the eyes of a child, which is genius, in my opinion. I loved that Harper Lee did that; having Scout narrate her observations was a powerful way of highlighting not only the injustice in racism, but the injustice in all prejudices. I think one of my favorite scenes in this novel happened during the big court case, when Scout and Dill stepped outside for a moment  and ended up having a conversation with Mr. Raymond, “the town drunk”. Mr. Raymond is known for stumbling around town nursing a brown paper bag-covered bottle. When Dill comes out of the courthouse with an upset stomach, Mr. Raymond offers him a sip of his drink to help him feel better, and this is when we find out that all Mr. Raymond has been drinking is Coca-Cola. The reason? Because the townspeople don’t agree with Mr. Raymond’s lifestyle (he has “mixed” children), so he feels the need to give them a reason for his actions–or something they can blame them on.

I had never encountered a being who deliberately perpetrated fraud against himself. But why had he entrusted us with his deepest secret? I asked him why. “Because you’re children and you can understand it…”

I love this statement that children can understand what adults are often blinded from. They haven’t been as tainted by prejudices like adults have been. And in Scout’s case, this can be attributed to her moral upbringing by her father, Atticus. Let me just say that Atticus is my favorite fictional parent ever–I inspire to be like him when I’m a parent one day. He shows how important moral education is for children, and I believe the book argues that moral education is the responsibility of the parent, and not the responsibility of teachers or even extended family members. Whenever Scout and Jem have questions, Atticus answers them, and he answers them in a way that his children can understand. Whenever they have faulty opinions, Atticus realigns them, and he does it in a way that doesn’t belittle his children. He takes his role as a father very seriously and he always leads by example. This theme of childhood innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird was incredibly powerful to me as a reader. I mentioned at the beginning that Scout’s narration produced this inspiring emotional conviction in me, and I don’t think I would have been as impacted by this novel if it had been written from any other POV, even if Jem had been the narrator. I loved Jem, he was a great older brother, but he was already a little too grown up to be the most effective narrator. But, he and Scout both gave me plenty of chuckles from quotes like the one I’m about to end this post with:

As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra.

Clearly there are countless of things to be said about To Kill a Mockingbird, but what were the ones that stood out to you the most?