I highly recommend Tom Ashbrook’s On Point podcast, “Alice and the True Story behind a Popular Fantasy” featuring Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, author of The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland, and Carolyn Vega, curator of the opening-next-week Morgan Library exhibit, Alice: 150 years of Wonderland.
Category Archives: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
(Thanks to Michael Patrick Hearn)
I am just back from participating in FILIJ, Mexico’s International Fair of Children and Youth Books and I am just floored by the experience. Run by Conaculta, Mexico’s governmental agency for the arts, it is BEA, ALA, NCTE, and the National Book Festival all in one glorious ten day event with over 300,000 people attending. You can get a taste in this photo gallery. They (this is translated by google so is probably not too great) wish:
to encourage the habit of reading among children and young people of Mexico; and bring together publishers, booksellers, distributors, librarians, teachers and specialists, in order to raise the quality and quantity of publications circulating in the Mexican market. Also aims to compare experiences, promote exchange with other countries and bring the public to national and international issues.
The festival was a vibrant place of tents full of books to see and buy, entertainments such as rock concerts and puppet shows, and tons of children and people eagerly enjoying books and stories. Among the events for professionals are a National Meeting for Booksellers (and, yes, the photo is of Laura Vaccaro Seeger and Neal Porter who participated last year), a National Conference of Librarians, an International Seminar (for 600 participants:) on the Promotion of Reading, and 5 hour Master Classes on Writing and Illustration. There were also school visits, all sorts of performances (just wandering around I saw a puppet show and a rock concert), and a huge area of workshops for children. You can get a taste of the magnitude of the festival by looking at this brochure that includes a map of the festival as well as a listing of all the publishers and a schedule of events.
Even before I got to the festival grounds I had an inkling that this was a big event for all, seeing this poster for it in the city center:
And once at the fair grounds I just enjoyed the energy. I was there only on weekdays, but am told you can barely move on the weekends.
(This was a lovely cafe, but I’m afraid the warm orange of the walls came out rather dark in this photo of mine. In the back you can see one of the delightful posters that were all around the place. I believe there was a contest to get the commission to do these posters.)
Outside the festival, I did a presentation on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to an attentive group of fourth graders at the Colegio Heraldos de México. They had prepared for my visit by watching both the Disney and Tim Burton’s movies, prepared questions, and created drawings and other decorations for my visit. The children’s English was fabulous — they seemed to follow my presentation with ease and asked thoughtful and carefully constructed questions. At the end I was surprised when they all wanted me to sign copies of Alice in Wonderland, personal autograph books, and paper. So I did so as Lewis Carroll’s proxy! And then they gave me gifts — mostly chocolate, but also a book, and an amazing folk art clay statue of the Virgin Mary. They had never had an author visit before so it was a very big deal. For me too! My thanks especially to the Mexican Macmillan folk (among them Renato Aranda and Mariana Mendia – – a fellow Alice fan ) who took care of everything beautifully.
Afterwards we went to the Museo Frida Kahlo (La Casa Azul where I’d first been years ago) and then to a fabulous lunch on the Coyoacan Zocalo followed by ice cream. I was moved by the candles for the 43 slain students, one of the many observations and demonstrations I saw while in Mexico City.
We were also in Coyoacan one of the nights for a lovely dinner with local authors and publishing folk. While walking about we stopped at the Centro Cultural Eleno Garro, a fabulous bookstore in an historic building with trees inside and flying lit books in the children’s section.
My talk for the symposium, also on Alice, went very well. The 600 listeners were generous, attentive, and had some excellent questions. I had observed one of my fellow presenters, illustrator Serge Bloch, a few days before so was prepared for the experience of simultaneous translation, especially when the audience reacted a few beats late to anything amusing. This is a shot from the auditorium during Serge’s presentation which will give a taste of what mine looked like.
Over the week I was there I met so many interesting people (a complete list of speakers is here) and especially enjoyed chatting with Bart Moeyaert, Serge Bloch, and Gonzola Frasca. And then there were my fellow-native-English speakers, the Australian writer John Marsden with his wife Chris, and the UK Chicken House publisher (and Harry Potter editor) Barry Cunningham. We spent our final day together visiting Teotihuacan and followed by a lovely leisurely lunch that included ant eggs and crickets (at a restaurant with a lawn on one wall). Quite tasty, I should say though I admit found it hard to put aside my cultural squeamishness.
My great thanks to Conculta and Karen Coeman for inviting me (and to Betsy Bird for suggesting that I could do a good Lewis Carroll tribute). Karen Coeman is the person who put the whole thing together and did so splendidly with such poise no matter what. I last saw her when she showed up at 6 AM yesterday at our hotel to be sure we all made it off at various times to the airport without difficulty. She is a class act that Karen! Thanks to her team including the fabulous Diego Sanchez Moreno and Orly Rosales as well as that committed and helpful group of volunteers who took care of everything for us.
I admit to a particular fondness for subversive books and so Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter Sieruta’s Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature would have been right up my alley even if I hadn’t known the three authors long before the book came into being. And so I was pleased as punch when Betsy and Jules invited me to answer a few questions about someone who created my favorite subversive book, Lewis Carroll.
We know that you’ve done a fair amount of research on Alice in Wonderland in your spare time so let’s find out some stories folks might not know very well. In fact, let’s start at the very beginning. Lewis Carroll. We know that name was a pen name and that he had a penchant for early photography. What don’t we tend to know about him?
The mythology around the creation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland centers on Carroll’s friendship with the real Alice Liddell and her two sisters. What has been completely overlooked is that the girls had an older brother, Harry, who was also one of Carroll’s good friends. Among the children of the head of the Oxford college where Carroll was a mathematics instructor, it was the nine-year-old Harry whom Carroll befriended originally. He took Harry boating, tutored him in math, to chapel, and so on. The friendship was reciprocated in spades; Harry was known to follow the young man around like an eager puppy. However, he soon went off to boarding school as was typical for boys of his time and class, leaving behind his three sisters who were educated at home by a governess. And so it was that Alice and her two sisters became the most famous of Carroll’s many child friends with Harry quite forgotten.
The relationship between Alice and Carroll has been the source of much speculation. Few people pause to wonder what happened to her when she grew up, though. What did she do with her life?
It seems to have been typical of her time and class. At age twenty-eight she married Reginald Hargreaves in Westminster Abbey and had three sons, one of whom she named Caryl. While she always denied it you have to wonder if she was being subversive and was indeed naming him after Carroll. In 1932 for the centenary of Carroll’s birth she traveled to New York City where Columbia University gave her an honorary doctorate. A delightful and completely fictional imagining of this event is Dennis Potter’s movie Dreamchild.
It’s hard to picture the book without also picturing the original illustrations. Are there any stories there?
The first edition of the book came out in July 1865, but was recalled when Tenniel informed Carroll that he was unhappy with the print quality of the illustrations. So the books were recalled and all who had received presentation copies were asked to return them. The rejected copies were sent to hospitals and other institutions. The handful that exist today are the most desired by collectors and the most expensive. After illustrating Looking-Glass Tenniel declined to illustrated any more of Carroll’s work leading many to suspect the relationship between the two had been a difficult one, but who knows?
Various adaptations of the Alice books have made their way into television shows and feature films. What’s your favorite Alice adaptation?
I’m still waiting for a completely successful one. So far I’ve liked parts of different ones, but I don’t think any work completely. One that I think actually does a lot quite well is Disney. I dislike his framing story — especially the end with the frightened Alice running back home as the book Alice is not fearful at all. However, many scenes are just wonderful, say the Walrus and the Carpenter.
I get a kick out of Betty Boop in Blunderland.
And I also quite like Alice at the Palace perhaps because Alice is played and sung by Meryl Streep!
But I’m still waiting for a great one.
Is there anything else about the book that you think folks are generally unaware of?
Just that it is a really fun and whimsical book and has an unfortunate reputation as being unduly dark. What it is is deeply subversive, especially for the original Victorian child readers. He makes great fun of so many aspects of their lives, say the didactic poetry they had to recite — the poems in the books are mostly parodies of dreadfully instructive ones Victorian children had to memorize and recite — as well as what they had to learn and how they had to behave. He respected children enormously and it comes through in the books. I urge people who have been dubious about the appeal of the book for children today to give it another look. Kids who go for other subversive books (Lemony Snicket’s come to mine) and/or those that play with language are really going to like these given the chance.
I started out wanting to be a children’s book illustrator. As a child I was celebrated for my art work, starting in high school I began creating my own illustrations for some of my favorite books and stories, and in college I was an art major, focusing on printmaking. At that time the most scathing criticism was that your work looked “illustrationy.” And so I did beautiful minimalist engravings and etchings in class and did my illustrations at home, careful to not let anyone in my printmaking world know about them, especially not the instructors — renowned artists themselves — whom I admired tremendously.
From college I went right to Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps Volunteer. There I taught and worked as an illustrator for NGOs, creating various educational materials. My biggest project was to create illustrations for a multi-media presentation on bridge and road repair. I learned how to deal with cement, how to fix a hanging bridge, and so much more. I did posters on scabies, on breast feeding, on malaria prevention. And at home I worked on illustrations for Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child”, inspired by the gorgeous flora and fauna all around me.
When I returned to the US I considered an MFA in printmaking, but the lack of personal encouragement from my former instructors decided me — I’d stop feeling guilty about my illustration work and focus on that. And so I put together a portfolio and made the rounds (while also teaching elementary school— I wasn’t brave enough to go free-lance full-time and, besides, I loved teaching). I taught the legendary editor Janet Schulman’s daughter and she kindly looked at my portfolio, but we both agreed my work was too austere for her books. At Harpers they held on to my portfolio for a while, but then suggested I do some things to make my art a little too cute for my taste. There were a couple of agents too, but nothing came of it.
Perhaps because of greater recognition for my teaching, work in early educational computing, and critical writing, I lost interest in illustrating. My final work is from 1998 when I had the idea of creating an edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that would be visually annotated for children. That is, it would have loads of small Richard-Scarry-like-drawings that would help young readers understand the text, even the more antiquated passages. And then Roxanne Feldman (aka fairrosa) whom I’d met online came to my school. A savvy web designer, when I asked her if we could put a few of the kids’ drawings of Alice online she said “sure” and ended up doing the whole book — the first two and a half chapters illustrated by me and the rest by my 4th grade students. Sadly, a couple of years ago the school reorganized their servers and it is no longer accessible.
It is rare these days that anyone sees my work (or even knows about it) other than my “Elephant’s Child” illustrations as they are framed and sit over my couch right next to Robert Byrd’s original cover art for Africa is My Home. Then last night, thinking about my current book project which involves making Alice accessible to young readers today, I remembered those Alice illustrations of mine. And while I have no wish to continue that project (my focus is on writing now), I thought it might be fun to make them again available for others to see. Perhaps I will, at some point, put up some of my other old illustrations — I did some for Tolkien, L’Engle, and a whole bunch of folk and fairy tales. Meanwhile, if you want to see my efforts with Alice please go here.
Lou Bunin did a fabulous stop motion Alice in Wonderland film in 1949. I’ve heard so much about it, but seeing it in total seems to be elusive. (Evidently Disney had a hand in this, wanting his version to be the movie version.) The clip below gives you a taste of why we Carrollians are so eager to get our hands on it. ( This young woman found a French subtitled version — scroll down to see it— that, she indicates, is not complete.)