"What is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"

Oleg Lipchenko's version of Lewis Carroll's Mad Tea Party

You can’t really have too many copies of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. At our house, we have Robert Sabuda’s gorgeous big pop-up adaptation, with my favourite page being the one in which Alice outgrows W. Rabbit’s house. Her foot pokes out the chimney, another crashes through glass, her arms burst through the roof and the wall, and a lock of hair escapes where the windows join. If you peer into the house, you can see the White Rabbit’s little floor rugs and his carroty wallpaper and Alice’s huge, terrified face overshadowing all. N got this book from her auntie when she was about three, and it has been a wonderful way to introduce her to to the curious world of Wonderland.

Alice pops up and out, by Robert Sabuda

This Christmas my mom gave her an unabridged new edition, with beautiful illustrations by Oleg Lipchenko. Purists will accept only John Tenniel’s precise and beloved images, cut by Victorian engravers the Brothers Dalziel. But Lipchenko’s illustrations actually suit the story well in a very different way — richly detailed but smokey and muted, warped like the pictures in dreams. I was happy to read he has plans to illustrate Through the Looking Glass as well. Right now he’s at work on Carroll’s Hunting the Snark, which he characterizes as “not really a child’s story, rather for grown up children … illustrated from wall to wall.”

When my mom gave the book to N, she recalled having tried to read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland herself as a child, but said she could never get through it because of how impossible it all seemed. It is nonsense literature, after all, and not for everyone. But her comment made me think of a time I’d visited N’s school and read some book reports posted on a wall by some of the older students. I don’t remember what book they’d read, but it was a fantasy of some sort, and there were lots of frank comments like, “I didn’t like that book at all. What happened would never happen in real life.” As adults we often assume kids love impossible make-believe (and even that adults do not). I wonder if it’s got more to do with character, or stages a person goes through, or exposure to a wide array of stories, or just what it is that determines these kinds of preferences. A friend recently told me she really disliked Jabberwocky because it was so nonsensical.

John Tenniel's Jabberwocky creatures

Perhaps, as the Knight advises Alice, you need to have your hair “well fastened on” to go for such a ride. “The wind is very strong here,” he warns. “It’s strong as soup.” Personally, I love Jabberwocky. It and The Walrus and the Carpenter (talking of many things) put Through the Looking Glass over and above Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on my list (if I had to choose, which of course I don’t). There’s a delicious dark ripple in Through the Looking Glass that appeals to my morbid side. I especially like the song the Knight recites to Alice, called Haddocks’ Eyes, in which a man asks an “aged, aged man … how is it you live?” and the aged, aged man gives all sorts of horrible answers that reveal the pathetic details of his life —

He said, “I hunt for haddocks’ eyes

Among the heather bright,

And work them into waistcoat-buttons

In the silent night.”

— details that were not far off for many English paupers in Lewis Carroll’s day. Or should I say Charles Dodgson. I recently read both Alice books back to back, using yet another copy that sits on our shelves, a lovely old edition featuring Tenniel’s illustrations. And then I followed those up with lots of internet reading about Dodgson/Carroll, a weak-chested, half-deaf, stammering, somehow asymmetrical, willowy man who apparently referred to himself as “the dodo.”

And yet he certainly hasn’t gone the way of the dodo, seeing how his books continue to engage new generations, both in their original forms and in endless interpretations. We haven’t seen the Tim Burton Alice movie yet, but by coincidence, when N received her Christmas book, I received A is for Alice, a little gem of an alphabet book by mad woodcutter and printmaker George A. Walker. You can see the book being made at The Porcupine’s Quill press, and George himself hovering in mid-air with anticipation.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “"What is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"

  1. Lenny

    Completely agree re: Oleg Lipchenko’s drawing. The one you posted made me immediately think of a dream. The subconscious has an interesting way of putting things together. As for Alice, the underlying anxiety of the story might be too much for some. I was going to liken it to middle age but it seems to me that anxiety was always lurking somewhere as a child too.

    • kristendenhartog

      The funny thing I have noticed is that it’s difficult for me to remember many of the details of both books, and the order of events, even though I just read them recently. I wonder if this is because of the nonsensical quality — if part of what helps you remember a book or a movie is that, for the most part, the story makes logical sense. This happened which led to that happening, and so on and so on. But in Alice’s world, everything is unexpected. And so harder to recall in the aftermath? Maybe that’s why dreams slip away too. Or maybe this too has more to do with middle age?!

  2. Marilyn

    I had always thought that a person had to be the right age to read a book like Alice in Wonderland. Being too old or too young, the book just wasn’t of interest, but maybe, as you suggest, it is the personality of the person. I never could read it as a child and even now as a grandma I still am not even the slightest bit interested in reading any kind of fantasy. I watched the print making video and it is very fascinating.

    • kristendenhartog

      Yes, I enjoyed that too! Fascinating to see it from start to finish, and how smooth and tidy it all is.

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