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Go ask Alice: Lewis Carroll's classic passes through many artists' looking-glasses this season.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll

Illustrated by Oleg


Tundra Books

93 pages, hardcover

isbn 9780887769320

A Is for Alice

George A. Walker

Porcupine's Quill Press

64 pages, softcover

ISBN 9780889843233


CLASSICS. IT'S NOT WHY WE REVISIT THEM, but how. The huge collective agreement about what evokes our amazement and amusement, tested in every generation, is what distills them into masterpieces. The urge to revisit them is so that we can put our own time's imprint upon them.

We have new Alice in Wonderland book versions this season, as well as the truly magical Tim Burton 3-D movie. The book was first written, illustrated and hand-lettered in his "fairy writing" by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Later, it was reluctantly illustrated by John Tenniel, a well-known Punch cartoonist, and published in England in 1865. Interestingly, the first print run of 2,000 was shelved because Tenniel objected to the print quality; a new edition, released in December of * the same year but carrying an 1866 date, was quickly printed and became an instant best seller. There have been countless versions, in many languages, of this peculiar fable of a young Victorian girl after she falls down a rabbit hole. Even Dodgson himself published many different editions, including a simplified nursery edition.


At the end of every Alice's Adventures in Wonderland edition we learn it was all just a dream. This surreal tale has allowed artists of all kinds--writers, illustrators, film makers and musicians--the opportunity to dream it their own way in every generation since. Even the National Ballet of Canada is hosting a collaboration about Alice with London's Royal Ballet for next year. There have also been many film versions, including six preceding the familiar Disney one in 1951.

Jefferson Airplane, a 1960s pop band, sang White Rabbit based on Alice. Their emphasis was on all those little bottles that said "Drink me" in the book, making it clear that the culture of recreational drugs was opening up.

So. We recall the time-honoured tale or, perhaps, tail: Alice obeys a rabbit with a pocket watch. All the other characters tell her constantly what to do. They humiliate her into what to do next. She is puzzled, often. Well, who wouldn't be? Constantly shrinking or growing, she meets a disappearing cat, a hookah-smoking caterpillar, a talking hare and a dormouse at a mad tea party; queens, courts and juries made up of more talking animals, flamingoes and playing-card soldiers. Ordering Alice around seems to be the main plot device. She is easily dismissed, insulted and admonished on to the next event. Kindness seems to be at a premium. The book does reveal how children were talked to in Victorian times. Not heard, just seen, like the obedient Victorian child she was, Alice finally does act on her own, especially in the Burton movie version.

Tundra Books has a fancy new illustrated hardcover book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But the telling detail is that the illustrator, Oleg Lipchenko, a Ukrainian living in Toronto, has chosen to draw the actual little Alice Liddell, for whom Charles Dodgson imagined, wrote and named the original tale. Lipchenko's Alice has short dark hair with bangs and wears a long thin jumper with a little white collar, although his other characters are still in Victorian garb. Tundra has gone all out in the production of this edition. The book is magazine-sized, 93 pages, with metallic gold leaf edges. The cover has a paper wrapper around it with a round cut-out window showing through to a full-colour tipped-in illustration with a gold-lettered title. The inside art is extensively detailed black and white drawings with a sepia tone over various areas and sections.

(The original Tenniel version had black and white engravings with occasional full-colour watercolour illustrations. Some editions only had the black and white engravings.)



Every chapter in the Tundra edition begins with two highly detailed borders around each page of a double-page spread. There is a large illustrated initial starting the story under the chapter title on the right. An oddly pale surreal image, such as one large crying eye within a spiral, or a half-drawn rose with a pencil beside it, is surrounded by a dark, busy border on the left. The use of these clock-dripping (alas!) surreal images and mixed styles is startling and adult. Although they do reflect the bizarre things Alice goes through, they do not strike me as compelling images for a young reader. Other pages have art nouveau tendrils twisting diagonally across the spread with spot drawings of activity sharing the space with the type. The various characters have goofy cartoon faces, not unlike the Disney version, but the realistically drawn short-haired Alice seems to be based on a series of photographs.




Which, of course, is the back story to the original Alice. Photography was a relatively new invention in the 1850s. The unmarried Dodgson, a mathematics professor at Oxford, taught himself how to develop photographs. Especially of little girls. We find that activity a little dodgy now, but it was all part of the new art form of photographic portraiture in the mid 19th century. Dodgson took nearly 3,000 photographs from 1856 until 1880, when he abruptly stopped. There is much evidence that his very favourite little girl was Alice Liddell, a redhead with short hair and bangs.

In the Tundra book there is a myriad of details: secret messages, tiny objects, letters, animals and symbols illustrated in the borders, so for those children and adults who love to discover puzzles, this is the book for them. I just wish I could have warmed up to this Alice. Is it because the drawing of the girl herself is trying to be too realistic? Is it too much of a stretch to accept a different Alice from Tenniel's original? Or is it because she is drawn, not with ease, in a different style than the other characters?

Tim Burton's astounding new 3-D movie, Alice in Wonderland, presents an actress, Mia Wasikowska, who is very close to the Alice we all recognize from the original book. The other characters in this movie also follow those Tenniel drawings pretty closely, which is in itself a source of humour. lohnny Depp cast as the Mad Hatter seems so right, even though he was willing to play Alice. Helena Bonham Carter as the literally head-strong Red Queen is perfect. The smile of the Cheshire cat is all smoke and teeth, his syrupy voice is Stephen Fry's. Alan Rickman speaks as the wise but insulting old Caterpillar.

The plot is revised to observe an older Alice who must slay her imaginary labberwock, which gives her the inner strength and determination to reject, in reality, her family-picked suitor. The opportunities here to have chases and flights, dimensions and dreams, is ideal for 3-D. We truly experience falling, flying, shrinking, growing and fear of heights. I am impressed that the new plot fits so seamlessly with the well-known classic. The characters are oddly believable and metamorphose, each in its own way, by meeting Alice.

The huge variety of strange events that happen to Alice has always sent illustrators into the land of fabulous detail since 1865. Every age of printing method has produced another style. There are scores of collectors of the many Alice in Wonderland editions and the Lipchenko will no doubt be the latest one to own. The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto now has the large Joseph Brabant collection of many book editions, letters and paraphernalia concerning all things Alice. Coach House Press printed the illustrated catalogue for an exhibition in 1999 that displayed many of those illustrated editions, including a wicked Ralph Steadman version.

Another illustrated Alice book, among many out this season, is by George A. Walker, a Toronto wood-cut artist, who has bound his own handprinted books in the past. This edition, A Is for Alice, published by Porcupine's Quill, is a charmingly absurd illustrated alphabet book.

Alice continues to fascinate, resonate and communicate. Curiouser and curiouser, indeed.


This page, counterclockwise from top right: George A. Walker; John Tenniel; Oleg Lipchenko; George A. Walker; Oleg Lipchenko; John Tenniel.

That page, clockwise from top left: John Tenniel; Oleg Lipchenko; John Tenniel; Barbara Klunder.

OlegLipchenko's artwork reprinted with permission of Tundra Books.

George A. Walker's engravings reprinted with permission of The Porcupine's Quill.

Barbara Klunder's drawing originally appeared in the Literary Review of Canada.

Barbara Klunder has written and illustrated her own set of modern classics with Groundwood Books: Other Goose: Recycled Rhymes for Our Fragile Times (2007), and also a Toronto Island illustrated alphabet book. She is now working on a book of limericks. In 2009, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Art Directors' Club of Canada.
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Title Annotation:'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and 'A Is for Alice'
Author:Klunder, Barbara
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2010
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