Penelope Farmer‘s The Summer Birds, published in 1971, is a strange book which features Charlotte and Emma Makepeace, now best known from Charlotte Sometimes. Thematically it continues the idea of loss of childhood innocence and the idea that the summer must end.
Charlotte and Emma live with their grandfather and his housekeeper in a grand house but go to the local school. On their way in one morning, they come across a boy who teaches them to fly. Gradually he teaches all of their friends to do so and the summer world of the children begins which the adults cannot see or experience. In secret they begin playing games and enjoying themselves, tempered only by the two weeks of rain, which exposes the tensions between them.
When he comes to the house, the boy cannot be seen by the housekeeper and leaves Charlotte in trouble when he throw water all over the bathroom. Yet the teacher, Miss Hallibutt can see him when he comes into the school yard. When she comments that she always wanted to fly, he responds “No, I can only teach children. You – you are too old”(page 72). Farmer presages the ending of the innocent fun and in the tensions caused by the rain, a challenge is laid down for the boy to reveal his real identity.
Charlotte starts questioning the boy’s motivations whilst the group are eager to take up his offer to take them to a utopia. The boy reveals that the power can only last until the end of the summer. Charlotte’s honesty forces him to disclose that he is the last of his kind and has been told by the Phoenix that he needs to encourage children onto his island to transform them into birds. As she will discover with Clare in Charlotte Sometimes the merry-go-round must end.
She exposes the darker side of the Peter Pan dream where the consequences are considered. Whilst Peter can happily live as a child for ever and take children to Neverland, there are families who have lost children and must deal with those consequences. Instead of pandering to an adult wish to return to a childhood nirvana, Farmer makes the reader aware of the results of the dream through the non-return to the real world. Rather than remaining as children, they need to grow up and to remember the fun that they had and grow up.
Developing Farmer’s concern with the ending of childhood, The Summer Birds comes back to Peter Pan and questions Barrie’s supposition that Neverland is an ideal place to wish for. Instead of the return to childhood, she reacts to the post-war theme of adapting and dealing with the real world, exhorting children to accept that family is important as is growing up.
The Summer Birds, Penelope Farmer (Chatto and Windus, London, 1971 reprint)
Update: Post slightly edited for accuracy. I was reading the books in reverse order at the time.