The song begins with fiddle and flute, a seafaring tune. The lyrics start with a boy asking a sailor to bring him things from his upcoming travels around the world. By the end, the music slips into a sad tone. The lyrics are from a poem by the British poet, Charles Causley, “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience.” While Causley ends his poem with words capturing the devastation of war, for me the line, “O where are the other girls and boys?” became the lament of a boy searching for a girl who tells stories, and all he can find in the home where she lived is a box of books set out on the sidewalk, fluttering in the wind.
The beautiful and haunting tune is by Natalie Merchant, who set Causley’s and other poet’s work about childhood to music for her 2010 album, “Leave Your Sleep.” The album provided a perfect background as I mentally mapped out my book for middle grade readers, The Island of Lost Children, a contemporary retelling of the story of Peter Pan and Wendy.
“The Sleepy Giant,” lyrics by Charles E. Carryl, provides the gruesome images that introduced Wendy’s strange teacher turned pirate Captain Everett “Hookhand” Steed. “Little boys do not like to be chewed,” laments the aged behemoth, member of a villainous brotherhood who evokes some sympathetic feelings, as does Steed in time. The song, “Equestrienne,” about a “girl in pink on a milk-white horse,” inspired a scene from the book where stick horses become real horses. The poet Rachel Field provides the evocative verse:
Every hair of his tail is fine, and bright as a comet’s; His mane blows free,
And she points a toe and bends a knee,
And while his hoof beats fall like rain
Over and over and over again.
Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s 19th century poem, “Indian Names,” about the plight of Native Americans put to musi,c becomes the theme of the “tribe” of children led by Cholena, a community of children most at home in the forests of the island. “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” using the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, becomes the theme that reminds Peter of how he came to the island and learned to fly, and who was there to teach him.
One of the most beautiful songs on the album provided the soundtrack for the book’s ending, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “The Land of Nod.” The song played in my head as I thought of Peter dropping off children one by one, back to their homes and with their families, the families he doesn’t have (or so he thinks).
All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do—
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams.
The character Lily, who decides at the last minute to return to the island with Peter, has not resolved her conflict with her adoptive mother. A scene I cut from the novel to save for a novella to come has Lily returning to China to seek her family, thanks to a Chinese coin given to her by the faery Bellatresse, through Peter. Listening to the song “The King of China’s Daughter” had me imagine Lily, accompanied by Wendy, soaring over the unfamiliar land of her birth, looking for the family lost to her, surrounded by clouds in the shape of writhing dragons:
I skipped across the nutmeg grove
I skipped across the sea;
But neither sun nor moon, my dear,
Has yet caught me.
My sincerest gratitude goes out to Natalie Merchant for this wonderful set of songs, most of which made for such sweet daydreams and who through them pleasantly helped midwife a story waiting to be told.