A few weeks back Maria Tatar had a piece in the New York Times, “No More Adventures in Wonderland” in which she noted that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan were books based on stories created for real children. I have absolutely no wish to reopen the conversation that was the result of this piece, but I do want to point out some recent pieces related to the Alice exhibit opening tomorrow at the Tate Liverpool that do reinforce Tatar’s (and my) point about Alice being created for a particular audience, that is Alice Liddell, one of Carroll’s child friends.
I’ve long admired Harvard’s Maria Tatar for her varied work on children’s literature and folk lore. She’s done a number of fine annotated editions of classical books and tales including her latest, The Annotated Peter Pan. Today she has a very thoughtful article in the New York Times, “No More Adventures in Wonderland” in which she contrasts the older children’s books of J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll with more recent ones such as those of Neil Gaiman, Suzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman, noting that while the older and newer writers are both bridging the line between adult and child, they are doing so very differently.
While Carroll and Barrie were known for spending massive amounts of time with children (something quite acceptable then, but discomforting to us today), Tatar points out that “…Carroll and Barrie knew what children wanted in their stories precisely because they were so deeply invested in finding ways to win their attention and affection in real life.”
She contrasts this to current writers like Suzanne Collins who provide for their child readers,”… an unprecedented dose of adult reality in their books, sometimes without the redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.”
For me all these brilliant writers who create imaginary worlds are cross-over writers. It is just that those from an earlier time have a very different orientation than those today. Carroll and Barrie were trying to create worlds of imaginative delight, safe places for readers of all ages to enter. In today’s stories,” writes Tatar, “those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”
A very interesting read.
I was a collecting child which no doubt partially explains my interest in museums. At one point during my many years trying to figure out how to tell Sarah Margru Kinson‘s story, I seriously contemplated doing it as an exhibition complete with a curator and rooms for each part of her life. I especially like the cabinet-of-curiosities-sorts-of-museums, those with cases and rooms filled to the brink with things, say London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum and Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum*. I also adore the idea of museums that are sly and totally unlike anything else, say The Museum of Jurassic Technology or Dennis Severs’ House (both of which I yearn to see). And when it comes to children and museums, the more experiential and hands-on, the better.
Which is why I’m excited about Oxford’s Story Museum. It is truly an original idea — blending art, performance, telling, viewing, and pretty much everything else story-related in imaginative ways. While the physical museum will not be open for a while yet, they’ve been working in schools and doing all sorts of programs featuring their ideas about stories. Some of these include:
- Schools programme “Since 2005 the Story Museum has been working with teachers to harness the power of stories to inspire and support children’s learning. An important strand of this work is oral storytelling: learning to tell stories from memory.” Some of the schools they work with center their whole curricula around storytelling, Storytelling Schools.
- Alice’s Day. As you might guess given the name of this blog, I wish I could have been at this year’s event, just a few weeks back and am thinking I’ve got to get there next year as it is a very important anniversary for Alice.
- 1001 stories That’s right. “Inspired by this ancient Arabic tale we have set ourselves the challenge of gathering and sharing 1001 stories for everyone to enjoy.” They’ve got a bunch there already.
Yesterday, Philip Pullman who is, unsurprisingly, one of their patrons took me to the museum where we got a fascinating tour with co-director Kim Pickin. The physical space is a remarkable warren of rooms of all sizes with a fascinating history and, if they do even a smidgen of what they dream to do, it will be extraordinary. They’ve got some massive Alice cut-outs peering out of the windows, a dinosaur, some scary vaults (part of the space used to be the post office and there are rumors that gold bullion was stored there at one point), some very old printing presses, and lots of energy . Outside they’ve a few sly touches to intrigue passersby.
The sign says “Rochester’s Story Supplies” and the objects are witty and clever story references. I wasn’t able to get a very good shot of the window so you must just go yourself to see it! Below is another small and even more subversive window with three bowls— for what story, do you think? They’ve got a third in the works being created by Mini Grey that is going to be equally clever.
And then there is this phone box that I noticed as we drove in, wondering about the chain. To give you a feel of their sensibility, they’ve toyed with it being a museum entrance.
* I visited the Pitt Rivers Museum today for the first time and I’m in love — the way they’ve maintained the original sense of the place is fantastic. One of the best museum experience I’ve had in some while. I also enjoyed very much the Oxford University Museum of Natural History which is in front of it — what a gorgeous Victorian space!
Until now I thought the only way to experience Alice’s size changes in Wonderland was by playing her as an avatar in a computer game, fooling around with fun house mirrors, or the traditional way — losing yourself in her book. But thanks to a tip from Tobin Anderson I’ve learned that a Swedish scientist has successfully created another way. In his lab at Karolinska Institute Henrik Ehrsson is exploring illusions, one of which causes its subjects to feel they have changed size. According to this Discovery Magazine article:
In a typical experiment, a volunteer is being stroked while wearing a virtual reality headset. She’s lying down and looking at her feet, but she doesn’t see them. Instead, the headset shows her the legs of a mannequin lying next to her.
As she watches, Bjorn van der Hoort, one of Ehrsson’s former interns, uses two rods to stroke her leg, and the leg of the mannequin, at the same time. This simple trick creates an overwhelming feeling that the mannequin’s legs are her own. If the legs belong to a Barbie, she feels like she’s the size of a doll. If the legs are huge, she feels like a 13-foot giant.
Van der Hoort performed this illusion on almost 200 people. Questionnaires revealed that they did indeed think of the mannequins as their own body parts. Familiar objects didn’t break the spell. When van der Hoort threatened the mannequins’ legs with a knife, the volunteers’ skin broke into a worried sweat, as if their real bodies were in danger. If he touched the doll’s legs with a pencil or his finger, the recruits thought they were being prodded by giant objects. Rather than feeling like dolls in a normal world, they felt like normal people in a giant world.
Sounds pretty eerie to me, but given the chance I’d try it anyway. Wouldn’t you?
Every year I read aloud Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to my fourth grade class and then have them read on their own The Wizard of Oz. Along the way we learn about the books’ authors and illustrators, something of their publishing history, and perhaps view the most well-known movies associated with the two. This year, rather than doing an elaborate project with either book as I’ve done before, (as we’ve already got another elaborate project underway — a silent movie homage to Charlie Chaplin) I had the kids do blog posts comparing the two books. Now I’ve always found them connected for various reasons and so it was interesting to see what the kids had to say. Here are links to some of their posts:
Thanks to Anita Silvey whose Almanac entry yesterday inspired this post.
Thanks to Phil Nel for pointing me to this post about Suzy Lee‘s Alice in Wonderland. As soon as I saw it I realized I had the book, but had it long before I’d seen any of Suzy’s fabulous picture books (such as Wave and Mirror). Now looking at it I recognize her style completely. Delightful, of course. And eerie, of course, too.
Last night Jack Murphy and Gregory Boyd’s musical version of Alice in Wonderland arrived on Broadway. Now I am indeed quite a Carrollian, but a fairly selective one. That is, I don’t go to stage versions or buy book adaptations that do not seem likely to fit my tastes. And so I’d held off going to this version based on the videos I’d seen which left me completely cold. Charles Isherwood’s review in today’s Times only reinforced that feeling. He writes:
The model here appears to be the Broadway behemoth “Wicked,” which recast L. Frank Baum’s “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as a moral-dispensing tale of exceptionally gifted young women (hitherto known as witches) finding common ground in girl power. Unfortunately “Wonderland” reminded me even more strongly of another latter-day iteration of the Baum story, the bloated 1978 movie version of the Broadway musical “The Wiz.”
You’ll recall — or maybe you won’t — that in the film the teenage Dorothy of the stage version became a grown-up, put-upon New York schoolteacher played by a saucer-eyed Diana Ross. The adventurer in “Wonderland” is also a harassed New York schoolteacher, Alice (the capable Janet Dacal), who aspires to write children’s books. Recently separated from her unemployed husband, she has moved to the “kingdom of Queens” with her daughter Chloe (Carly Rose Sonenclar, a good actress and an almost preternaturally skilled singer).
The problem for me is that Baum and Carroll’s stories are so different. The first has a driving quest plot — Dorothy wants to get home, but Alice hasn’t a similar wish in her original book — the only vague plot thread is her desire to get to the beautiful garden. The heart of Alice’s story is the wit, the language play, and the episodic encounters with odd creatures. I have no problem with someone figuring out how to strengthen the plotline as long as they maintain the humour and wit, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. (Nor was it, for that matter, in last year’s Tim Burton effort.) And so Alice as Dorothy-in-the-Wiz just doesn’t work for me. (And by the way, Whoopie Goldberg already did an urban Alice for kids years ago.)
One film that does, I feel, give a sense of what Carroll was all about is Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild which is currently and frustratingly not available on DVD. It does seem to be on youtube in bits so here is the first part so you can get a taste:
The Lewis Carroll Society of North America
Fall Meeting: Saturday, November 6, 2010
New York Institute of Technology
11th floor Auditorium 16 W. 61st St. between Broadway and Columbus Ave. New York City
The meeting is free, and open to the public.
12:00 Andrew Sellon “Welcoming Remarks”
12:05–12:20 Edward Guiliano “Greetings, and A Few Wise Words About Martin Gardner”
12:20 –12:40 Oleg Lipchenko “Butcher in the Ruff: Rendering the Snark (A Work in Progress)”
12:40 – 1:30 Adam Gopnik “Looking-Glass and Broken Mirror: Honoring the Spirit of Lewis Carroll”
1:30–2:00 Break and Book signing: Messrs. Gopnik & Lipchenko
2:00–3:15 Jenny Woolf “Viewing Lewis Carroll as a Real Person”
3:15–3:55 Cathy Rubin in conversation with Andrew Sellon “The Real Alice Liddell: A Conversation with Pictures”
3:55–4:25 Break and Book signing: Mmes. Rubin & Woolf
4:25–4:35 August Imholtz, Janet Jurist Election of New LCSNA Officers
4:35–5:15 Andrew Sellon “Meeting Mr. Dodgson: One Carrollian’s Journey”
Lewis Carroll meets Lady Gaga in this psychedelic update of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This new adaptation blends the lyrical whimsy of Alice with high-octane physical theater and the dynamic vision of acclaimed Hungarian director János Szász (Mother Courage, Marat/Sade, The Seagull). The result is a fresh, funny, and emotional remix of Carroll’s classic coming-of-age tale.
Next month at the American Repertory Theater. If you get to see it (I’m in NYC and this is in Boston so I probably won’t), let us know how it is. Looks to be much more up my alley than this.
Thank you, Alison Morris, for directing me to the book sculptures of Su Blackwell. Here are a few that are particularly apt for this blog, but the others are extraordinary too, many from classical children’s stories.