Can Play Heal?

Beloved children's writer Katherine Paterson talks about fantasy and play in the Oscar-nominated movie 'Finding Neverland.'

BY: Interview by Laura Sheahen


Katherine Paterson is the author of over 20 books for children, two of which have won the Newbery Medal. Her novels--including "Bridge to Terabithia" and "The Great Gilly Hopkins"--have been praised for their insight into the psychology of children and for their rich imaginative scope. Paterson spoke with Beliefnet about "Finding Neverland," a movie which tells the story of "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie and his friendship with a bereaved mother and her four young sons.

The movie "Finding Neverland," like many children's books, focuses on the value of play. In it, J.M. Barrie, the author of "Peter Pan," joins children in creating imaginary worlds. What did you think of the movie?

I loved the way it moved from the world of everyday into fantasy. It dealt with the very difficult issue of death and grieving, but did so in a cathartic way, wrenching the tears out of you--but at the end, you felt cleansed and hopeful. And Johnny Depp is one of the few American actors who can truly act. He truly enters in to the person he's portraying.

Peter Pan takes the play of children-playing Indians, pirates, fairies--and turns in into fantasy. Every child imagines that he or she can fly. So what Barrie did was take things that are very natural to the play of children and incorporate them into a fantasy for children, so you were sort of seeing your own play turned into art.

In the movie, becoming deeply involved in this play world of Indians and pirates is shown as a way to deal with tragedy or suffering in real life. Do you think that creating imaginary worlds is escapism, or does it perform a healing function? Or both?

I think it's probably both. All of us use art and literature as an escape from time to time-but if it's any good, it has a healing quality, a quality that enlarges our human spirits.

In your books as in the movie, children grapple with grief. I'm thinking of your book "Bridge to Terabithia," where children create a fantasy world. How does this idea of a fantasy world help people through death and grief?

Well, death is very mysterious to us. One moment someone is there with us, and the next moment they're not. It's hard for us to conceive that that's the end, so our imagination immediately begins to try to comfort us.

Of course, all of the religions in the world have used that. I'm not saying it's true or not true, I happen to believe it's true. But even if it's not true I think it would serve a comforting function.

The problem with people who are afraid of imagination, of fantasy, is that their world becomes so narrow that I don't see how they can imagine beyond what their senses can verify. We know from science that there are entire worlds that our senses can't verify. In the old days, your senses couldn't verify that the world was round. So if we say it's not there because I can't see or touch or feel it, we're just like the people in pre-scientific days who did not believe that the world was round.

So fantasy serves a function in helping us to expand our consciousness so that we can begin to conceive of things that we can't actually perceive. I try to read modern physics and they all sound like poets and mythologists. I think somebody asked Einstein how to help a son become a great scientist and he said, "Read him the great myths. Expand his imagination."

That reminds me of some of the adults in the movie who were embarrassed by Barrie's childishness or playfulness. In some ways, they were the limited ones.

They were the limited ones. And it was a genius move, which I hope is historical, getting the orphans to come to the show [the premier of Barrie's play "Peter Pan"] and planting them in the audience.

I thought it was brilliant. I wonder if it's true myself.

I wouldn't be at all surprised. He had sense enough to know that the stuffy audiences who would pay the equivalent of Broadway prices to come to the show weren't going to respond at all unless they were given permission to by the children sitting alongside them.

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