Monday, January 11, 2016

Lewis Carrol and the advent of children's literature

Today Kathy takes us on a journey through the early history of children's literature with a retrospective on Lewis Carroll's classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Enjoy!

Alice's Wonderful World

“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and having nothing to do…when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.” As my ten year old daughter and I read these words together we were suddenly whisked away down the rabbit hole with Alice to join her adventures in Wonderland. On November 26, 2015, Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland celebrated its sesquicentennial, which is a fancy way of saying “150th birthday party.” What has made this particular book a favorite of children and adults alike? Why has this particular story endured through fifteen decades? I believe the answer lies in the pages of history.

From didactics to enjoyment

In retrospect, children’s literature before the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland stemmed from spoken stories, songs and poems which were used to educate, instruct, and entertain
Lewis Carroll
children as well as adults.  Homer’s The Odyssey, Aesop’s Aesop’s Fables, John Bunyan‘s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Perrault's Fairy Tales by Charles Perrault were considered the normal literary fare of the day. However, in 1744 John Newbery created what was believed to be the first modern children’s book, A Pretty Little Pocket-Book. The book was specifically targeted at giving enjoyment to children containing a mixture of rhymes, picture stories and games for pleasure. Author Phillip Pullman provides insight into the world of children’s literature prior to 1865 in his forward to The Complete Alice, “There were books for children before 1865, but they were almost all written to make a moral point. Good children behave like this; bad children behave like that, and are punished for it, and serve them right.” (1)  In the mid-19th century the genre of children’s literature began to shift away from didacticism to pave the way for humorous, child-oriented books which were in tune with the child’s imagination. This time period of history is referred to as the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. It was well named so, for many of what are now considered children’s literary classics were penned during this time period including, Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Alice Liddell, the girl behind Alice in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll changes children's stories

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, known by his pen name as Lewis Carroll was a mathematician, inventor of words, magic tricks, games, riddles, nonsense verse, puzzles but most of all he is  remembered for his ability to “spin a yarn.”  Charles, a tall, slim, shy man who spoke with a stammer and was more comfortable the company of children than adults. While serving as a mathematics professor at Christ Church College in Oxford, England he became acquainted with the Dean of Christ Church College, Henry Liddell, his wife, Lorina and their three daughters, Lorina, Edith, and Alice. It was during a rowing expedition along the River Isis in Oxford that Dodgson began his tales of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, featuring Alice Liddell as the protagonist. During subsequent meetings with the Liddell family, Dodgson’s storyline began to take shape based on experiences he shared with the Liddells. Eventually, Alice Liddell requested a written copy of Mr. Dodgson’s stories. The result was a hand written and illustrated book titled, Alice’s Adventures Underground. Soon afterward, Dodgson was persuaded to publish the book to make it available to the general public. The end result of Dodgson’s labor was the children’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll with illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. The initial 2,000 copies of the book sold out quickly due to the sensation it created among children and adults alike. Since its first publication in 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has never been out-of-print.

Enduring through time

     As I talked to bibliophiles who have a fondness for Alice and her adventures, I noticed there was a commonality among us which draws us to the story again and again. An imaginary land which can only be accessed by falling down a rabbit hole, nonsensical verse, a host of varied and colorful characters, and an adventure of a lifetime are all the things which have allowed this particular story to endure through the pages of time. Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic has inspired Alice-themed cinematic, theatrical and dance productions, as well as literary prequels, sequels and mysteries. In addition, there are books which have been written about the author and his famous yarn. One of our favorites is by Christina Bjork and Inga-Karin Eriksson titled The Other Alice: The Story of Alice Liddell and Alice in Wonderland.

     I believe author, Phillip Pullman sums it up best when he penned these thoughts on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, "In Alice, for the first time, we find a realistic child taking part in a story whose intention was entirely fun. Both children and adults loved them at once, and have never stopped doing so. They are as fresh and clever and funny today as they were a hundred and fifty years ago.” (2)

1.  The Complete Alice by Lewis Carroll; Henry Holt & Co.; 2015
2.  Ibid

Thank you Kathy! Any other Alice fans out there? Chime in and share your favorite Alice memories. 

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