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Field Notes: Alice, the Transformer

alice adventure underground1She began life as Alice Liddell, the daughter of an Oxford college dean, who in 1856, along with her brother and two sisters, was befriended by mathematics tutor Charles Dodgson, later better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. A few years later, on a summer boat trip, the first transformation occurred when Carroll told the girls a story of an imaginary Alice journeying into a wild underground world. The next transformation came when Carroll put the story into a handwritten and self-illustrated gift book for the real Alice (called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground). Then Carroll and illustrator John Tenniel altered her yet again, resulting, a hundred and fifty years ago this year, in the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Ever since, Alice’s story has undergone a dizzying number and variety of further transformations. Translated into countless languages, illustrated by a steady stream of artists, reworked for stage and screen, featured in theme parks and parties, and incessantly referenced in popular culture, Alice’s journey to Wonderland seems never-ending.

tenniel alice in wonderlandAlong with these artistic transformations is another kind: the one that happens each time a child first encounters the book, often by listening to an adult read it aloud. These are highly individual experiences, each depending on the particular adult reader and the particular child listener. In my case, the transformation was initiated by my father, who read the book to me in his heavily German-accented English when I was eight. I became besotted with the book and continued to read it over and over on my own, each time feeling I had become Alice, falling into Wonderland myself. Unsurprisingly, when I became a teacher, it became one of my favorite books to read aloud, initially with my students sprawled around me on the rug — perhaps imagining themselves in Wonderland as I had done — popping up only to look closely at Tenniel’s illustrations. That changed in 1990 when, after learning at an NEH seminar at Princeton of the many other artists who had illustrated the book, I designed a new language arts unit for my fourth graders: “The Many Faces of Alice.”

Now the children follow along as I read — selecting a different illustrated edition from my classroom collection for each session — amazed, as I still am, by the choices artists make in terms of media, settings, and scenes, each turning that little Victorian girl and her fantastical world into something completely original. There is always at least one student for whom Carroll’s handwritten and self-illustrated Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is a favorite; since I have shown them Carroll’s photographs of the Liddell children, my students know that his version of Alice with her flowing dark hair looks nothing like the real-life girl, reinforcing Carroll’s own insistence that the character was a dreamchild, not the actual Alice Liddell at all.

oxenbury alice in wonderlandTenniel’s illustrations are also appreciated, partly because they are the most familiar (Disney’s are clearly modeled on them), but also because of his elegant linework. As for more recent renditions, I like showing them Helen Oxenbury’s blonde in a short, wispy, sleeveless blue dress, calling her Gap Alice (after the store) because she seems so contemporary. While many of my students get a kick out of this happy little girl wandering about her cozy Wonderland, others prefer Barry Moser’s dark and ominous woodcuts. Anthony Browne’s version always goes over well; his visual playfulness with Carroll’s language, at times bordering on the surreal, is something we especially enjoy.

My students and I are always fascinated by exactly what the artists choose to illustrate. Tenniel, for instance, avoids depicting the scene with the Pigeon, post–mushroom consumption, in which Alice’s neck grows so long that her head ends up floating into the tops of trees, while Ralph Steadman gleefully includes it, shooting her head into the stratosphere. Or how about the tiny Alice’s playtime with the enormous puppy? Tenniel gives it almost a full page. I’ve never liked it, finding the animal oddly realistic in the otherwise fantastical landscape, the only significant creature that Alice meets that doesn’t talk. Of course, my students relish disagreeing with me, and they often, when doing their own illustrations, include one of that big pup.

kovac_wonderlandCarroll memorably wrote at the beginning of the book, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” and it is those crazy conversations that are at the heart of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. While they were surely amusingly familiar for Victorian children, who were well trained in the art of discourse, this is not the case for children today. And so I prepare my students, warning them that this will not be a straightforward adventure à la Harry Potter but an eccentric journey full of odd moments, funny dialogue, puns, riddles, and total silliness. Alice may cry and pout and fuss, but she never feels herself in serious danger; as far as plot goes, she has only a vague-ish wish to get to a lovely garden. While most of my students end up being entertained by Alice, there are invariably some who feel it should be more exciting. One frustrated student wrote a letter to Lewis Carroll urging him to add more zip to the story by, say, putting a spring at the bottom of the rabbit hole so that Alice would carom back up. While I am unaware of any bouncing Alice variations, those who are eager for more adventure and action should seek out Tim Burton’s 2010 movie version (a second one, Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass is due out soon) or one of the recent graphic-novel (Tommy Kovac and Sonny Liew’s Wonderland) and young-adult spins on the tale (A. G. Howard’s Splintered).

In addition to explaining that Victorian children were expected to engage in thoughtful conversations with adults, thus explaining Alice’s frustration with the Mad Hatter and March Hare, I also let my students in on other aspects of Victorian child life: for instance, the irony of Alice attempting to do an all-important curtsy while falling down the rabbit hole. The children become smitten with irony and take great 
pleasure in Carroll’s employment of that device throughout the book, as when Alice carefully checks the little bottle labeled “Drink Me” because:

she had read several nice little histories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them: such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked “poison,” it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.

I explain that there were indeed such miserable stories — so-called cautionary tales — and that Carroll is being not only ironic but subversive (another concept they delight in) by pointing out that these moral tales were rather silly and obvious. “Nice little histories,” indeed!

Carroll’s riddles, puns, games, and wordplay seem to be as pleasurable for my students today as when originally created. Alice’s hopeless attempt at mastering the times tables — “Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is — oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!” — is adored by these youngsters, who are themselves still struggling to memorize the actual, tedious facts. They revel in the upended logic of the Cheshire Cat’s explanation of why everyone in Wonderland is mad (“‘Well, then,’ the Cat went on, ‘you see, a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad’”) and eagerly consider the possible answers — over the years there have been many suggested — to the Hatter’s famous riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Perhaps the greatest pleasure taken by my students, besides the illustrations, are the poems. While Carroll’s verse stands wonderfully well by itself, my students enjoy tremendously getting a taste of the original drearily didactic poetry he is parodying, all the more when learning that these poems were standard fare for Victorian children to memorize and recite. At the end of the unit we always have a tea party, and for entertainment some children enthusiastically memorize and recite their favorite poems from the book, occasionally performed as raps. Last year a child read a new chapter he had written in which he included an original poem and the “didactic version” as well (also made up).

To balance out the talky nature of the book, in addition to having my students join in the chorus of the songs and poems, I have other ways of getting them actively involved. After reading about the Caucus Race, I place them around the room — per the Dodo’s instructions — and have them run randomly about. They also can’t get enough of indoor croquet, and after reading the Lobster Quadrille, I can always count on some giggly volunteers to demonstrate a few square-dance figures.

Best of all are the ways my students themselves transform the source 
material. These have included creating Victorian toy theater productions, 
movies, maps, plays, comics, digital retellings, book trailers, additional chapters, illustrations, songs, games, completely new stories based on the original, and toys. (I’ve still got the Alice doll one child made, complete with dress and pinafore.) Most recently, several children who were frustrated with Carroll’s ending wrote new ones. It is these modern-day transformations that are the most exhilarating — 
evidence that, a century and a half after she came into being, Carroll’s dreamchild Alice is still thriving.

From the May/June 2015 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Transformations.

About Monica Edinger

Monica Edinger, a fourth-grade teacher at the Dalton School in New York City, blogs at Educating Alice and the Huffington Post. She is the author of Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad (Candlewick), illustrated by Robert Byrd.

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Comments

  1. What a lovely article, Monica! I would like to share it on my FB if I may?

  2. remarkable and super interesting article..thx for sharing!

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