Category Archives: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

A Victorian Wild Thing, Lewis Carroll

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.

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My Life as an Illustrator (Culminating in Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland)

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.

 

 

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Lou Bunin’s Alice in Wonderland

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.)

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Spring Lewis Carroll Society of North America Meeting

It is certainly no secret that I am a fan of Lewis Carroll.  And so one of the fun things for a Carroll fan is to attend the occasional meeting of one of the literary societies focused on him.  I’ve been to several hosted by the UK, US, and Canadian organizations, the most recent being the Lewis Carroll Society of North America‘s meeting in NYC this past Saturday.

Now the meetings can be quite varied, often reflecting the locale, the president’s preferences, and more.  For instance, I’ve never been able to make it to one of the West Coast meetings (due to school schedules), but I always have salivated at the agenda as they often avail themselves of movie making and some of the wonderful collections that are there. Here in NYC we often meet at NYU’s Fales Library which has some terrific Lewis Carroll material, but this time we were at the NYIT thanks to one of our members who is the president of the institution.

I hadn’t been to a meeting in a few years and so I really enjoyed reconnecting with old friends at this one. While I had been to a couple of meetings before it was at the 1998 celebration at Christ Church in Oxford that I really bonded with a number of fellow Carroll enthusiasts.

The meeting opened with an interesting panel of the society’s founding members including Morton Cohen, Edward Guiliano,Michael Patrick Hearn, David Schaefer, and Justin Schiller.  I found the contrast to the Oz Club to be especially interesting. (Justin started that organization when very young and Michael has been very involved with it too).

Craig Yoe‘s presentation  on his new book Alice in ComicLand was great fun as is the book (and Craig himself). The selections performed from Bruce Lazarus’ Carrolling project were lovely and clever all at once.  I also enjoyed very much Chris Morgan on Carroll’s games and puzzles. He alerted me to some great online resources, notably celebration of the mind,  futility closet and martin-gardner.org.

Poet Jessica Young spoke about her book, Alice’s Sister and we Carroll fanatics were amused that she was under the misapprehension that Alice Liddell had a sister named Mary.  We were very entertained by April Lynn James/Madison Hatta’s performance of excerpts from  her “The Twinkle Bat Variations,” intrigued by Mike Schneider’s presentation of The Wordless Alice Project, and tickled by Tim Manley’s Alice in Tumblr-land.

All in all, a very good meeting and day.

 


 

 

 

 

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Alicewinks

Fans and newcomers to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland have something really special in store this season. This is Alicewinks, a remarkable ebook edition.  A labor of love by creators David Neal, William McQueen, and Brittney Owens, the edition took years, but the result is spectacular.  It is a beautiful and sensitive presentation of Carroll’s book featuring the art of twelve pos- Tenniel illustrators.  The ebook can be enjoyed as a conventional read (on a tablet, that is), you can peruse the art alone, listen to the story read it, but best of all are the animations. These take the story to a new place. The creators have taken the work of some older (time-wise) illustrators, some of whom to be honest were not my favorites, and in a manner of speaking, have refurbished them. The animations are elegant and subtle, all in all, beautifully done. Here’s a brief taste.

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Oxford and Alice (of course)!

We began by meeting Mark and Catherine Richards, old friends who lead the UK Lewis Carroll Society, and spent some time in and around Christ Church. I had fun looking for my room in Meadow Quad as it had overlooked the meadow and we all were absolutely gobsmacked at the massive lines waiting to get into the college. Huge tour groups of kids — hundreds and hundreds. Presumably all due to bits of the Harry Potter movies having been filmed there.

Finally we went in and walked about revisiting various places: the chapel, the door to the deanery (where I’d been with Catherine in 98), Carroll’s rooms at various points, the library, and the hall. I remembered so well the Buttery where we had before-dinner drinks. Here I am with the Richards in the hall (which was packed):

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We then met up with Mark Davies who suggested we take a quick look at the “Imagine” Alice exhibit at the Town Hall. Some of the objects were on loan from the Richards’ own collection and then there were some lovely hangings by local artist Anne GriffithsAlice’s House” and some other smaller works by her. I picked this lovely collection of small books at the bookstore.

Later Mark Davies took Tyner and me on a lovely bus ride to a spot in the country (while the Richards walked there) where we walked about a bit and then boarded an Oxford River Cruises boat (as we had the great luck that a group had chartered it one way and so it would have otherwise returned anyway empty) and headed back on the Thames to Oxford. Mark is an expert on Carroll, Alice, and the Thames and it was a glorious ride as he pointed out relevant points along the way. It was also just fascinating in terms of locks, canal boats (Mark pointed out the one he lives in), and more. We ended the day with a lovely dinner at a restaurant at Folly Bridge. I mark this day (a la Carroll) with a white stone.

Here are few rough photos I took (blurry as they were through the boat cover — it was a bit brisk!)

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The ruins of a nunnery.

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Godstow where Carroll first told the Alice story to the three Liddell girls.

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One of many canal boats we saw.

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A lock — is opened and closed by pushing and pulling as has been the case for centuries.

My great thanks to both Marks, Catherine, and Oxford River Cruises for a great day.

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Off to Oxford, London, and Edinburgh

I’m off on a play/work jaunt to the UK later today.

First stop is Oxford to do some research for my new Alice project.* I’ve visited many times, the most memorable being a magical week in 1998 at Christ Church, celebrating Lewis Carroll’s centenary. Ever since I’ve avoided the inside of the college, wanting to keep pure my memories of that wonderful time: living in Meadow Quad, extraordinary meals at the Hall, champaign at sunset, late night port, the Deanery Garden, and much more. Now I do need to revisit places related to the Alice story and am fortunate that my return to the college will be with Mark and Catherine Richards of the Lewis Carroll Society who organized that 1998 event (and  just may have provided that port.) And then something very special (thanks to Philip Pullman who put us in touch with each other): a boat journey with Mark Davies, author of Alice in Waterland: Lewis Carroll and the River Thames in Oxford.

Next will be London. I’m traveling with a young colleague who has never been to the UK before so I’ve been having fun thinking of my favorite things to do with her. Our plans include the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical, the Charles Dickens Museum, the Cheshire Cheese Pub,  tea in Kensington Gardens, visiting the Richards and seeing their extraordinary Carroll collection, catching up with Joan Aiken’s daughter Lizza (whom I also visited last year), having dinner in the V & A’s gorgeous Morris rooms where their cafe is located. Oh and seeing stuff there (say this special exhibit on Beatrix Potter’s sketches of a beautiful waistcoat). This visit is a little bittersweet as I will not, for the first time, be going to Swain’s Lane in Highgate to see my cousin Lotte Passer who passed away earlier this year at the age of 99. (Do read this Guardian obituary — she was an extraordinary woman who was instrumental in getting my mother and her family out of Germany in 1939 as well as many others.)

Our final stop will be Edinburgh where I’ve never been.  I’m very excited to see this city that is always so enthusiastically praised and because of the festivals that will all be going on. Thanks to the press office at the book festival I will be doing this and this and will be reporting back about both for sure.

I may or may not post while en route, otherwise, see you when I get back!

*As many who read this blog know, I’m obsessed with Alice in Wonderland. Every year I read it aloud; for a taste of last year’s students’ enthusiastic responses check out their book trailers. Providing context is key; I tell them a lot about Oxford and the life of the real Alice and her siblings, read some of the original poetry Carroll parodies, oversee an indoor croquet game, organize a caucus race (complete with confit-like prizes for all), and attempt a quadrille. Wanting to somewhat replicate this experience in book-form, I’m exploring doing so from the point of view of the Liddell children (among them the well-known Alice and the almost completely overlooked brother, Harry).

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