Pollution hits Neverland in Peter Pan, the Sequel

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The Independent Culture

It is a book that has been one of the best-kept secrets in the literary world, its contents zealously guarded by legally binding confidentiality agreements. Those in the know were sworn to secrecy, while its eventual publication is due to attract much ceremony.

But now, just six weeks before readers around the world are due to learn what happens to Peter Pan, Wendy and the Lost Boys, the lid has been lifted - if only partially - on the contents of Peter Pan in Scarlet, the long-awaited and officially sanctioned sequel to J M Barrie's children's classic.

A copy of the manuscript, written by the award-winning British children's author Geraldine McCaughrean, has been leaked to The New York Times, which has published a summary of the plot.

It disclosed that McCaughrean has retained the essential elements of the original Barrie style and that Wendy is now a wife and mother, the Lost Boys are the Old Boys and that the mythical Neverland is now an autumnal, polluted landscape, where the eternally youthful Peter Pan still lives.

As Peter Pan enthusiasts pore over the few details disclosed, the embarrassed publishers - Oxford University Press in Britain and Simon and Schuster in the United States - were trying to establish how the leak of such a carefully guarded document occurred. A number of copies are circulating in the publishing world and among newspapers bidding for serialisation rights, which have been asked to sign confidentiality agreements.

However, since the NYT is not believed to have been among them, there is little chance of any action being taken against the newspaper. The Oxford University Press and Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, which holds the copyright to Peter Pan, both implicitly recognised this yesterday, saying in a joint statement that they were trying to find out what had happened in conjunction with Simon and Schuster. The statement added: "However, as the published article included only a few new details, plus some inaccuracies, we do not feel that the secrecy has been compromised."

A spokesman for Great Ormond Street said: "It is unfortunate, but they haven't revealed everything and we will just have to live with it." Simon and Schuster also declined to speculate on the leak, a spokesman simply saying: "We are trying to honour the embargo plans."

McCaughrean, who could not be contacted for comment, is believed to be "relaxed" about the leak, stressing to the NYT how she had tried hard to capture Barrie's original style and mood, herself surprised on rereading at how "dark and ruthless" the original was.

According to the NYT, her new story is set in 1926, more than 20 years after the play was first performed on the London stage; the book, originally called Peter and Wendy, followed in 1911. In her book, the Lost Boys have grown up and Wendy is a poet, all of whom are visited by strange dreams of Neverland. With the aid of a new fairy, Fireflyer, replacing Tinker Bell, they become children once more, returning to the now less welcoming Neverland, where Peter is said to be "dying of boredom". Peter tells the children he has imagined them there. "But now I have imagined you here, we can have the best adventures in the world," he is reported as saying. And this group, renamed by McCaughrean as the League of Pan, duly set out on a new series of adventures.

The book is expected to raise a substantial, but undisclosed, sum for Great Ormond Street; since the copyright bequeathed by Barrie in 1929 expires next year it represents the last opportunity for the hospital to benefit.

It is due to be published worldwide on 5 October. Among the publicity events will be a launch party on 3 October at Kensington Gardens in London, site of the famous statue of Peter Pan.

McCaughrean, 55, is the author of more than 130 children's books and has won the Whitbread Children's Book Award a record three times. She was chosen by Great Ormond Street in 2004 from more than 200 applicants.