If ever there was a classic children’s book, Alice in Wonderland is it
Lewis Carroll’s fantastical story launched the children’s literary genre, so it’s fitting it has been celebrated in so many ways during 2015, the 150th anniversary of its first publication
This year is the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You need not have read the book to recognise the iconic images of a spunky girl in a blue dress, a peculiar rabbit with a pocket watch, the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts. The story includes a number of unforgettable quotes that are nonsensical and sometimes profoundly philosophical: “I give myself good advice, but I seldom follow it”, “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then”, and the infamous “Off with their heads!”
The origin story is as well known as the fantastical tale itself. The author spent a summer with the Liddell family and told stories to the three daughters on a river outing. Alice, one of the daughters, enjoyed the story so much that she asked Carroll to write it down for her. He worked on the manuscript over the course of the next couple of years. When it was published in 1865 with illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, Alice became an instant sensation. The equally successful sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, was published in 1872.
To commemorate this anniversary, Macmillan, publisher of the first 1865 edition, released a new edition, The Complete Alice, on July 4, also known as Alice Day. In the introduction to this anniversary edition, contemporary children’s writer Philip Pullman proffers an excellent view on why Alice became a literary and cultural phenomenon:
“It’s sometimes said that Lewis Carroll’s Alice books were the origin of all later children’s literature, and I’m inclined to agree. 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. 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 150 years ago.”
Carroll’s original handwritten manuscript titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, with illustrations by Carroll himself, was given to Alice Liddell, and eventually sold to the British Library in 1948. The original woodblocks of Tenniel’s illustrations are also with the British Library.
Alice came out of copyright in 1907, and many publishers printed their own editions. Since then, more than 70 illustrators have illustrated Alice, including Arthur Rackham, Tove Jansson, Ralph Steadman, Anthony Browne, Helen Oxenbury, Peter Blake, Robert Ingpen, Eric Puybaret, Lisbeth Zwerger and artists Salvador Dali and Yayoi Kusama.
Alice Illustrated, edited by Jeff Menges, is a compilation of imaginatively interpreted artwork by early- to mid-20th century illustrators.
There are also a number of 150th anniversary editions published in the past year, including a limited edition published by Engage Books, with all 42 of the original Tenniel illustrations, and another edition in which Glenn Diddit creates an unabridged graphic novel with black and white illustrations that pay homage to the original Tenniel illustrations.
Grahame Baker-Smith has created a panorama pop-up book, together with his designs for an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland collection of 10 stamps for the British Royal Mail.
It’s difficult to come up with a generally accepted definition of what constitutes “timeless” or “classic” literature. However, when a book has never been out of print and has been translated into more than 176 languages, as Alice has, it indisputably qualifies as such.
Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong (bringmeabook.org.hk), a non-profit organisation advocating for family literacy