I recently had the opportunity to interview Colleen Oakes, author of the Wendy Darling and Queen of Hearts series, and pick her brain about all things writing, fairytales, and Peter Pan. Both series are wildly imaginative re-tellings of beloved, classic stories, and her writing centers around strong female characters — even when that strength is demonstrated in wildly different ways. She was incredibly generous in her advice for young writers, and she has wonderful insight for delving into the darker, more difficult sides of beloved stories. Enjoy!
What inspired you to write your own spin on Peter Pan? Specifically, what prompted this darker version?
I knew that after Queen of Hearts I wanted to write another fairytale retelling with a strong female character. When I first picked up Peter Pan to read it again before starting Wendy Darling, I was struck by just how adult that story is. As a child, you remember the Lost Boys having fun and Peter flying, but there are a lot of dark and twisted things about the story of Peter Pan: gender roles, violence, strange hints of hatred for mothers…It’s a much deeper and more diabolical story than it gets credit for. That darkness resonated with me, and I knew that Wendy Darling would be the character, and the book, for me.
Between your Queen of Hearts saga and the Wendy Darling series, you have quite the impressive reputation for this genre of retellings. Do you have plans for more classic literary reimaginings?
I do, but I’m not at liberty to say which one is coming next. However, I can tell you that I love strong side characters and that my next book will have a male character as its lead.
As you mentioned in your wonderful essay “My Feminist Heroine Isn’t a Warrior, and That’s Okay,” Wendy isn’t a Katniss or a Buffy. She’s a different kind of bold but just as important as more violent protagonists. Was that deliberate?
Absolutely. Dinah in Queen of Hearts was rageful, jealous, and violent. I wanted someone that was the complete opposite of that, someone who was graceful, sweet and family-minded. It doesn’t take a warrior to change the world; it just takes someone who finds the will to be brave in the gravest of circumstances.
Something that really struck me while reading the Wendy Darling trilogy was how well-fleshed out and creative your version of Neverland was. There were so many fantastic characters, places, and ideas that weren’t in the original story but still felt right. Who is your favorite “original character” from the series? And what was your favorite “update” to the original story’s Neverland mythos?
My favorite original character from the series is probably John with his minced words and his narrow view of the world, or Hook with his diabolical obsession with killing a child. My favorite update to the story deals with Peter’s relationship with the Lost Boys — how he uses them and how they come to Neverland in the first place. There is so much story to be told there.
Despite how beloved Peter Pan is, the unfortunate truth is that the original story is very white-washed and racist. However, your interpretation was diverse and respectful to Native Americans. Was that also deliberate, or did you find it to be incidental as you were creating this new world?
I wanted to make sure that I treaded lightly and respectfully in Wendy Darling’s treatment of Native Americans; the story and the movie surely don’t do that. When I rewatched the original Disney movie, I was shocked at how carelessly that was treated. I had just written extensively about a Native tribe in Queen of Hearts — the Yurkei — and I knew that I didn’t really want a repeat of that, which is why Lomasi (Tiger Lily) and the rest of the tribe remains a mystery for most of the books. When they appear, you know they are awesome and you want so much more of them. I could absolutely write a spin-off book about just the tribe that doesn’t involve Peter Pan at all.
Now that you’ve imagined incredible new things for two beloved literary worlds, which would you choose to spend time in: Neverland or Wonderland?
Probably Neverland, as my version of Neverland was based on Kauai, which is my favorite place on Earth. Wonderland might be a bit too whimsical for my dark heart.
What books did you love growing up? What books do you love now and would recommend to other readers?
This is such a hard question because this answer could be a five page essay with footnotes, but growing up my favorite books were: The Giver, Hatchett, Peter Pan (of course), The Westing Game, and Island of the Blue Dolphins. The grown-up reads that have shaped my life and career are the Game of Thrones series, Harry Potter, Red Rising, I’ll Give You the Sun, Peace Like a River, The Hunger Games, and the Eragon series.
What inspired you to become a writer, and what is your favorite part of being one?
I think the books I read growing up inspired the writer in me to emerge, and my favorite part of being one is interacting with readers and the actual writing process. Writing is like breathing to me; it’s necessary to keep functioning at a level that’s healthy and creative. I had teachers from elementary to college that encouraged this gift, and that also brought the writer in me to the surface.
They always say that to be a good writer, you need to read good books. What authors do you enjoy reading?
Well, I can personally recommend Pierce Brown, Sarah J. Maas, Julie Murphy, Angie Thomas, Jandy Nelson, Jennifer Niven, Stephanie Perkins, John Green, Kathleen McGee, Brianna Shrum, and Jeff Zenter. And that’s just eleven out of hundreds I could name.
What encouragement would you have for young, aspiring writers?
To trust their story idea. So many times we think that other people know the best story to write, and we see an amazing story and think, “I wish I had written that.” However, that same thought probably occurred to those writers. The best stories come from your heart, and no one else can pull from that place — only you. So get writing.