Process Notes: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Sisters of the Neversea

This is not the first time my gifted VCFA colleague and longtime friend, Cynthia Leitich Smith, has held conversations with the literary canon. Her Tantalize series is an ongoing bestselling heart-to-heart over several volumes with Dracula by Bram Stoker.

In Sisters of the Neversea, Cyn brings this confab habit to a middle grade audience, and in the process creates a joyful reinvention of an old, revered standby!

J.M. Barrie’s Tiger Lily and Wendy had better step aside for these sisters. It’s their saga, a telling of their truth. The characters have been brought smartly forward into contemporary time, to present-day Oklahoma. They’re part of a blended family in which Lily’s mother is a member of the Creek Nation and Wendy’s father is a British expat contemplating a return to England. I was captivated by the narrative voice, the big sweep of story, the tiny details of character and above all, the loving embrace of family. 

And I was bursting with questions for Cynthia, so I’m happy to say she was kind enough to answer a few of them.

[Uma] The narrative voice in this book feels like a kindly presence throughout, keeping an eye on everything, anticipating readerly questions, and conveying the magic of the setting or the quirks of characters through droll asides. Can you talk about how this voice developed for you? Was it there from the start or did it settle into place somewhere along the way? And how do you see its role in the book? 

[Cynthia] Why do fairy tales still beckon us? Why have they endured? Retellings like SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA may infuse the characters with three-dimensionality, but certainly, the tradition’s foundation is built on archetypical paper dolls.

Certainly, it’s not that they’ve always been pleasant forms of escapism. Even upbeat musical adaptations are rife with child kidnapping and captivity, murderously dysfunctional families, and hefty parental death tolls.

Yet, while SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA is a reinvention—not retelling—of PETER AND WENDY (AKA PETER PAN), I agreed with J.M. Barrie’s decision to use of a storyteller’s voice.

It’s been said that the most powerful magical words are once upon a time and the most satisfying are and they lived happily ever after. Without the journey in between, both phrases are meaningless. Yet they speak to the age-old tradition that has most unified humanity: Story.

My novel invites both Native and non-Native kids into the storyteller’s circle, much in the way that all of our ancestors, on every continent of Earth, gathered around fires to listen in community. The narrator makes a promise to young readers—perilous though it may be, you are not alone in this adventure. Take my hand, and let’s experience it together.

It’s a tremendous responsibility to retell any classic children’s book, especially one with well known, problematic aspects. I approached the task from a place of tremendous respect for young readers and young fictional heroes as well as with a heightened sensitivity to those kids whose identity elements had been stereotyped in Barrie’s original. I approached it with an understanding that healing was necessary. I approached it from a place of hope and love.

[Uma] That shows. I think that’s why this reinvention feels very natural, because of course it’s past time for it to step forward in time, to update its fairytale self.

Author Cynthia Leitich Smith at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Smith, author-curator of the Heartdrum imprint, is standing in front of the flag of the Muscogee Nation. Photo by Christopher T. Assaf. Image courtesy of Cynthia Leitich Smith.

[Cynthia] One of my favorite films is Rob Reiner’s 1987 film adaptation of “The Princess Bride,” with a screenplay by the modern fairytale’s author William Goldman. While my approach skews more earnest and theirs more farcical, my narrator’s voice was probably influenced by how Peter Falk’s character, the grandfather, drew on an omniscient voice, a conversational voice, by how he engaged in direct address, offered empathy and reassurance, nudged toward growth, and concluded his reading with the story’s catchphrase—as you wish, meaning I love you.

All that said, the voice came naturally to me. I imagined myself, playing pretend, putting on fancy airs as a storyteller to entertain beloved children around an imaginary campfire. I leaned into the wonder, into the love, into the magic, and into the fun.

[Uma] Love leads me to how you treat Peter’s character. It’s a clear-eyed portrayal but it’s also compassionate—we learn why he’s the way he is, we see him in vulnerable moments. Some of that, as in Lily’s conversation with Daniel, almost feels like historical reference. I smiled at Peter’s reliance on yellowed storybooks for comfort! But then there’s the horrific impact he has on everything around him, the endless taking. Sometimes he seems a metaphor for us, human beings on our only Ever-earth. So I’m curious, what does Peter represent to you?

[Cynthia] For over a century, Peter represented limitless potential, clinging to callousness. Arguably, he embodied the long history of children’s literature itself, one in which the marginalized were erased or maligned. And yet, he’s still a child, and Neverland was not without its diversity.

Barrie’s instinct to bring together white British and Indigenous characters wasn’t the problem, it’s that the latter were dehumanized in the process. And like the body of children’s literature, Peter Pan is now tasked with redeeming himself, with opening his mind, with recognizing that all the world isn’t his alone for the taking.

By welcoming characters like Lily and her little brother Michael into his heart, by welcoming blended and bicultural families like the Roberts-Darlings into his Home Under the Ground, Peter will finally—with effort—be able to grow into all he was meant to be.

[Uma] I think you’re right, he did embody the literature of our field. Our reverence, like his, for yellowed storybooks shows a kind of nostalgia for a time that may not really have existed. But you’re saying the solution lies in being generous, opening our minds. That’s wonderful. It feels like a way to be hopeful even in this hope-constricting age we seem to be in. Related to which, what made you happiest about writing this book?

[Cynthia] Worldbuilding! You might think that crafting a retelling meant that it was simply a matter of slipping into an already fully realized world. That was far from the case here.

Fantasy writing demands an internally consistent, coherent execution, one that hopefully further illuminates the themes and informs both the internal and external arcs of the story. That requires intellectual rigor, but it’s also an elaborate exercise of the imagination, of play on the page.

Because they’re the most striking, readers tend to pay heightened attention to my re-envisioning of the female and Native characters, and certainly, I centered both of those identity elements. But it was a delight to bring three-dimensionality to the fairies, Merfolk, and crew of The Jolly Roger—a sense of their histories, sensibilities, cultures and ways in which they’d evolved over time. What an honor to give Belle more agency and nurture her growth on the page! How magical to consider how the lives of the Native people on the island and Merfolk in the water might have intertwined! Meanwhile, gone is disability as a shorthand for high-seas villainy; these Neverseas welcome every child who longs to talk like a pirate and sail away!

[Uma] I rejoiced to see that–and I thank you too for lifting the stigma off stepmotherhood! I suspect there will be more to love in this book each time I read it. Mvto, Cyn!

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