Under the Mike-roscope: Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith

If I were a book reviewer, I’d be the world’s worst book reviewer. Honestly, I stink at it. That said, I’m not a book reviewer; I’m a microbiologist. A scientist. I like to read and write middle-grade books not only for enjoyment but study them and learn from them as well. 

  • What techniques and skills do the author incorporate into their work?
  • What kept me turning pages?
  • Why did I forget to do my chores when reading this book?

And any additional questions as to why a book takes over my brain.

Today, I’m sharing Sisters of the Neverseas by Cynthia Leitich Smith, a book that has taken over my brain.

I’ll spare you my version of a summary of the book because it’ll sound a lot like my almost 4-year-old grandson describing the fireworks display on the Fourth of July. All over the place and delivered with terrific, over-the-top, and breathless enthusiasm. Instead, I’ll sum up my take on Sisters of the Neversea in three words.  

READ THIS BOOK!

As a fan of Cynthia Leitich Smith’s work, I admit I had high expectations for Sisters of the Neversea. It was on my reader radar for quite a while before its release. When I finally got my hands on a copy and read it, it did not disappoint. If fact, I’m currently listening to the audiobook immediately following a listen of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. 

One of the many things that blew my socks off with Sisters of the Neversea is in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. Being a middle-grade writer with an interest in how authors put together their books, I’ll often read the author’s notes or acknowledgments before I read the book. This time I was so stoked to start reading, that the thought to read anything but the book itself never crossed my mind. When I finished and read the Author’s Note, here’s that bit that caught my eye and hooked my storyteller radar.

“One of the most interesting and powerful things about Story is that it invites future storytellers to build on it, to reinvent, and to talk back. Like any other kind of magic, stories can harm or offer hope, even healing.”  

                                             – Cynthia Leitich Smith, Sisters of the Neversea Author’s Note

That’s money. Bulletin board material to post above the writing desk. I’m still bouncing it around in my brain.

Sisters of the Neversea is a masterclass on reinventing a classic story, especially a classic wrought with questionable representation. Cynthia Leitich Smith tells a better story than the traditional Peter Pan story. She expands the story world, and its characters, adding depth to both. The setting of Neverland itself becomes a player in the tale. Best of all, she “talks back” to the original work in a way that’s believable and imaginative.

She doesn’t hide, bury, or run from the questionable representation of the original. She addressed it and attacks it head-on. Her answer to the “redskins” and “injuns” and to the role of girls and women in Barrie’s creation, is to create fully-fleshed Native characters from different Nations and backgrounds and strong female characters throughout. 

She seamlessly weaves the reinvented narrative into the existing framework of Barrie’s work. It has this amazing way of feeling like Barrie’s original Peter Pan yet tells its own unique and contemporary story.  

One of the parts of Sisters of the Neversea I particularly enjoyed was the family dynamic. The weight and burden of the blended Roberts-Darling family’s problems seem insurmountable to Lily and Wendy. This leads to a lot of anger between them and a growing rift. Their home in Oklahoma, their parent’s marriage, and their future as sisters are all on the line. 

However, when they get separated and enter Neverland, Lily and Wendy begin to see each other and their family’s problems in a new light. By taking a step back from the day-to-day struggles at home, the step-sisters realize their problems, no matter how large, can be dealt with as a family. Talk about story magic bringing hope and healing!

Good literature makes the world a little brighter. Great literature transforms it. With Sisters of the Neversea, Cynthia Leitich Smith completely transforms the world we’ve come to associate with Peter Pan and Neverland with luminosity and truth. Under her skilled hand, the Neverland story becomes something entirely different. Something better. Much, much better.

I hope the Sister of the Neversea finds its way into the hands of young readers. I also hope it sparks them to read Barrie’s original and realize the attitudes and mindsets of yesteryear don’t have to be the attitudes and mindsets of today. Things can, and should, change as knowledge changes.

Finally, I can’t wind up this look at Sisters of the Neversea without admitting there’s a wide smile on my face. No, it’s not the amazing cover art by the late Floyd Cooper.* The smile is because I ran across a recent social media post from Cynthia about how she’s drafting a new middle-grade novel. This makes me happy for young readers. The potential for a new, transformative Cynthia Leitich Smith book has this reader on Cloud Nine.

*Judge a book by its cover, please! Floyd Cooper’s artwork captures the characters and the story in perfect fashion. No need for Peter Pan here! Lily, Wendy, and Michael beckon you to the adventure. Come on in for the ride, my friends! We are going to miss Floyd Cooper.

Note: In case you can’t tell,  I am a fan of Cynthia Leitich Smith. In the work she does on the page. In the work she does with and for the Native writing community. In the work she does for the We Need Diverse Books community and leading the Heartdrum Imprint at Harper Collins. She is a force in the kidlit industry while being one of the nicest people in the business. (Perhaps the most remarkable example of how skilled she is as a writer is the fact she had me riveted to her Tantalize YA vampire series back before I was even aware of her other work. Me! Reading YA vampire fantasy! Now that’s writing talent!)

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Mike Hays
Mike Hays has worked hard from a young age to be a well-rounded individual. A well-rounded sports enthusiasts, that is. If they keep a score, he’ll either watch it, play it, or coach it. A molecular microbiologist by day, middle-grade author, sports coach, and general good citizen by night, he blogs about sports related topics at www.coachhays.com and writer stuff at www.mikehaysbooks.com. He can often be found roaming the Twitter-sphere under the guise of @coachhays64.
1 Comment
  1. ok, you got me. I have to buy this book now. Peter Pan was my all-time favorite story growing up. Although I understand what people say about the stereotype things and whatnot, I was hooked on this story as a child and as an adult, this was my go-to story to tell verbally to young children when I started teaching. I ignored all the female parts basically and mostly talked about Peter. I was a tomboy so I loved Peter’s character and would have loved for him to be my best friend. Most of my friends growing up were boys. I loved the adventures, and how I never wanted the story to end. I also hated it when Mary Martin portrayed him in the theater. He was my wanna-be boyfriend. lol As a writer myself I know I would never write this way but it connected to me as a child. As a teacher, I am glad that today’s stories show respect for different cultures and add more powerful female characters. I look forward to how this new book puts a spin on it. Thanks for a wonderful article.

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