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Alice In Wonderland: What Is The Appropriate Age?

One of the original illustrations for Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, showing Alice and the mouse swimming in the pool of tears

In a previous post on this book, I made a brief reference to having given a copy of Carroll’s book to my nephew. The decision over just when I should have presented the novel to him was fairly long in the making – not nearly as long as the waiting period for the time when he would be old enough for Narnia (I made that all by myself by having a copy ready when he was only one year old, and finally gave it to him aged eight) but enough that I spent a number of hours on it all told.

It was this decision and the contents of the book in general – obviously related – that made me question at what age it would be appropriate to give a child, any child, this book. And this is because I think it should be a little later than the age it might have been given in years gone by, namely the Victorian period during which it was written.

Whilst Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, the first of the two about Wonderland, does not state Alice’s age – though we can make an informed estimate due to John Tenniel’s illustrations – the sequel, Through The Looking-Glass, gives Alice’s age as 7. That book takes place in November, and the first takes place in May, which means we can say for certain that Alice is 6 and a half to 7 years of age over all.

The two books were published in 1865 and 1871, and a lot has changed since then. The literary context and wider culture was different enough that a book that sports quite a bit of violence was okay then but not now – in fact I think it’s interesting that the word that comes to mind now is indeed ‘violence’, as it’s obviously a strong word, and there has likely been a change over the years where that word would not have been used to describe the book1. The violence in the book, such as the well known ‘off with her head!’ which Disney managed to rework into something a lot more palatable despite not altering the phrase at all, or the chapter featuring the baby and ‘highly strung’ guardians, isn’t really the sort of thing we tend to present to children. As Gardner says in his lauded annotation of the novel:

The fact is that Carroll’s nonsense is not nearly as random and pointless as it seems to a modern American child [Gardner was writing with his compatriots in mind] who tries to read the Alice books. One says “tries” because the time is past when a child under fifteen, even in England, can read Alice with the same delight as gained from, say, The Wind in the Willows or The Wizard of Oz. Children today are bewildered and sometimes frightened by the nightmarish atmosphere of Alice’s dreams. (p. XIV)

And that was said in 1960.

We could also bring in the ‘madness’ (“We’re all mad here,” the Cheshire Cat says), which is sometimes seen along with the violence, but I’d say it’s fair to assume that aspect is part of the bizarre wonderland, and due to the way children tend to interpret things in similar terms, isn’t anywhere near as problematic2.

As Alice is seven years old in the book we can assume that this is roughly the age Carroll imagined his readers to be. Seven could perhaps be the ‘right’ age for a modern reader, but I think we can say that nowadays it would depend on the reader’s personality and upbringing a lot more than it would have in Victorian times given societal and cultural changes. In a world where capital punishment was still acceptable and known about by all, for example, a queen running about shouting for people’s heads to be removed wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. On the first book’s release, reviewers disliked it, but the first book sold quickly and has never been out of print (Wikipedia, n.d.). It’s also remained with the same publishing house, Macmillan. In 1991, Donald Rackin said of the novel:

Victorian readers generally enjoyed the Alice books as light-hearted entertainment that omitted the stiff morals which other books for children frequently included. (p. 20)

As we know, books in the centuries prior had been mostly about religion and instruction, and although ‘fun’ books had been conceptualised by John Locke in the 1600s, it wasn’t until the mid 1700s that what we would now call children’s books were published3. By this measure, Carroll’s work would have been something to celebrate over and above the simple fact of the fantasy it offered.

But there is of course a whole world in between strict Victorian morals for children and the education we provide today. Alice doesn’t take away from Wonderland any lasting knowledge, meaning that her brief stays are purely adventures and she remains the mischievous – or, ‘bother’, as I said for lack of a better word a couple of years ago – which, in the context of Victorian opinion and years that are not so far in the past, isn’t as much as a selling point as it might have been years ago. There are lessons for the reader to learn, namely, in my opinion, that of being considerate, but they are for the reader, and affect Alice only for that moment. (See the chapters wherein Alice offends a mouse by talking about the loveliness of her cat.) These lessons are easy to understand and well-constructed, but the onus is entirely on the reader to see where Alice is wrong, and there is no provision of reward for the reader in terms of acknowledgement by Alice apart from that momentary self-awareness in one scene.

It’s interesting to note that the recent live-action adaptation, partly produced by Disney, sticks to the original idea of bizarre to the effect that it’s fairly scary. This is solidified by the UK rating of Parental Guidance (‘should not unsettle a child aged around eight or older’), a marked difference to the 1950s cartoon version which is a U (‘should be suitable for audiences aged four years and over’).

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that, in conjunction with the second novel, seven is a fair age, but there is enough to consider to make eight, or even nine, perhaps, a good option. Six and a half, whilst only months away from seven, might be pushing it.

What’s your opinion on the reading age, and have you had to decide about what age to read/give a child a book that due to its era poses potential questions?

Footnotes

1 In 1936, one Paul Schilder wrote an entire essay in the context of psychoanalyse and the potential detrimental affect on young readers. The essay is unfortunately behind a paywall so I couldn’t cite it here, but if you have a subscription to the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, you’ll find it here.
2 This said, there are comments that can be made in regards to eating disorders, mental illnesses, and Carroll’s life and intentions that Molly Stroud (2018) has summed up well in her essay, Mental Illness in Alice in Wonderland.
3 I wrote about western children’s literature here.

References

Online

Wikipedia (n.d.) Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Wikipedia, accessed 12th December 2018

Books

Gardner, Martin (ed.) The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition by Lewis Carroll (1999), W W Norton & Company, New York.
Rackin, Donald (1991) Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland And Through The Looking-Glass, Twayne Publishers, New York.

 
Jenny Colgan – Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop

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Couldn’t miss this one this year.

Publisher: Little Brown (Hachette)
Pages: 389
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-751-55180-8
First Published: 7th November 2013
Date Reviewed: 17th October 2018
Rating: 4/5

Rosie is looking forward to Christmas. Having moved from London to a small rural town (having broken up with her non-committal boyfriend and finding someone better), she’s ready to experience the season in her little house and community. But Stephen’s mother, the lady of the manor, is still frosty towards her, and, now adding to the stress, Rosie’s family want to visit from Australia. It’ll be a trial fitting her family into the house and ensuring her shop stays afloat with the prospect of snow on the way.

Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop is a cute story that, given its advent setting, makes a great book for the weeks prior to Christmas.

Colgan exploits all the stereotypes to good effect: snow; little town; big cold houses; a bustling community. She even throws in the idea of Australians experiencing snow. This she does well, using easy language that’s nevertheless not nonliterary, and getting the balance between conflict and good company just right. It’s all very cosy, down to the traditionalism of the big glass jars in the sweet shop and the joviality of most characters. Development happens but suffice to say that whilst the plot works and the characters are the main aspect, you don’t mind not being blown away by either. The plot devices bring people together and are well solved; one device works as it does precisely because it’s in a Christmas book.

There are but a couple of low points. Firstly, the arrival of Rosie’s family means the arrival of some difficult characters, smarmy people with smarmy children who it’s hard to reconcile with the rest of the novel. And secondly, there is the use of the derogatory term ‘mong’ (‘a person with Downs Syndrome’; Oxford Dictionaries defines it as ‘a person who is stupid or who has learning difficulties’). This word is used by Stephen when he’s recovering from an accident and is in hospital, high on pain reliever – what we’d now call ‘out of it’. This obviously brings in prejudice where it was not needed and does not gel with Stephen’s personality (otherwise incredibly emphatic).

Besides this, and in general, the book is a really good seasonal read, and exactly the kind of chick-lit you want at Christmas; it’s the second in a series but stands fully alone – you may want to read the first (either before or after would work equally well) but you certainly don’t have to.

Related Books

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November 2018 Reading Round Up (Sort Of)

A photograph of an autumn tree at The Vyne

The reason my blogging has been so patchy: I got myself two furry friends of the rabbit persuasion. And rabbits, especially during the lengthy teenage months when they are chewing, thumping, and making other moves for which the politest translation is ‘voulez-vous coucher avec moi’, take up a lot of time. We’re now out the other side, and it is wonderful to be able to pick up a book again for more than a short period.

In November I didn’t finish any books but I did read a couple more chapters of Brick Lane. And I started Outlander, which I’m 200 pages into and enjoying. I may have lost the edge of Brick Lane‘s jacket to the discovery stage of A Practical Study into the Composition and Taste of Paper, a project thankfully since abandoned.

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My plan for December includes finishing Outlander and watching the first TV season so long as only the first book is covered, reading at least one more Christmas book to accompany my nonseasonal (October) reading of the Jenny Colgan I’ll be reviewing in a few days, and making an hour or two to re-read a childhood favourite – Babysitter’s Club #21, which I discussed in 2016 as a book I’d like to re-read if I could find the box I’d packed it into. The box has since migrated to a spot in front of my shelves.

If there is time after the above I have an as yet unwrapped set of A Song Of Ice And Fire.

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In related news, I attended the Young Writer of the Year Award ceremony yesterday evening. The prize was given to Adam Weymouth for Kings Of The Yukon. This is the first year since the relaunch that I’ve not read any of the shortlisted books, however I took home with me a copy of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet which I hope to read by February.

I’m going to use these next weeks before Christmas to get back into the swing of things. Expect a few reviews and, hopefully, a discussion post or two.

What are you planning to read during the rest of this month, and have you ever lost part (or all) of a book to a pet?

 
October 2018 Reading Round Up

I didn’t do badly in October. Looking at this list has made me realise how long the month was, and in a good way; whilst the last week of October was very cold – in relative terms – the majority was sunny and warm and I think the number of summery days, with the change following, afforded the effect of more time. This month was also about library usage – I’ve reviewed books I’ve borrowed from the library in recent times but this time it made up almost half of my reading, and I gave the books back with the idea in mind to purchase at least one of them at some point. (It’s likely the Whitehead will be on my ‘best of’ list, and I think not having my own copy when there’s a big chance I’ll want to re-read it or think on it further would be difficult.)

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn – A young Irish girl is sent by her family to a growing America in the hope she’ll find a better life there. Lacks a real plot and characterisation.

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Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad – Two slaves run away from the plantation and board an underground train to a less southerly state where life is likely better. Fantastic.

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Eloisa James: A Duke Of Her Own – Villiers needs a mother for his six illegitimate children and thinks to choose between enticing Eleanor and ‘mad’ Lisette; if Eleanor has anything to do with it it’ll be she he chooses. The best of the entire series – awesome characterisation and often very funny.

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Eloisa James: This Duchess Of Mine – Jemma knows it’s high time she and Elijah had an heir to the dukedom, and both husband and wife secretly hope love will blossom. Not as good as the rest of the series.

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Jenny Colgan: Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop – Despite decreasing sales at her shop, Rosie is looking forward to Christmas in a snowy village and spending it with her reluctant-to-be-a-Lord boyfriend, but her family want to come over from Australia and there’s a problem ahead for the community to deal with. Pretty fun and festive.

No contest, the Whitehead won it this month. A Duke Of Her Own was a very close second, and certainly if I hadn’t read The Underground Railroad at the 11th hour, it would have won, but Whitehead’s commentary and ending was just something else. The Colgan was a lot of fun to read.

Quotation Report

This is another occasion wherein paraphrasing the quotation just won’t work. Here it is in full, from The Underground Railroad:

Yet when his classmates put their blades to a colored cadaver, they did more for the cause of colored advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.

Finally the end of my busy period is in sight, even if it’ll soon be replaced by Christmas planning. I’m looking forward to reading (I believe the vernacular is ‘well, duh!’), evenings on the sofa listening to Eva Cassidy, and looking for gifts.

How was your October, and how is the weather where you are?

 
Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

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A subway before there was a subway.

Publisher: Fleet (Little, Brown)
Pages: 364
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-708-89840-6
First Published: 2nd August 2016
Date Reviewed: 29th October 2018
Rating: 5/5

When Caesar approaches Cora to ask her to run away from the plantation with him, she considers it for a short while before agreeing – it’s an incredibly dangerous idea but even her fellow slaves are against her and she feels it is worth the likely death to escape. What she doesn’t know is that Caesar has chosen her due to her own mother’s escape and presumed freedom. They may be able to make it to an underground railroad station and hitch a ride on a locomotive that will take them on the first leg of their journey. The railroad has various stations dotted about the country, and it is up to the individual runaway as to whether they stay in a particular place or return to the train and keep travelling.

(The ‘underground railroad’ is a widely known fact of history in the States – any readers who are from other countries that do not cover the railroad in their general curriculum and don’t know about it, will want to read up on it whether before or after having read the book1.)

The Underground Railroad is a historical fantasy about the American slave trade and slavery, and about the country’s history with race as a whole. Using both history from the slavery era and the further racial discrimination that followed in the decades after abolition, Whitehead’s book is both a stunningly creative look at the country’s growth as a nation, and a fantastic commentary and criticism of the same.

This is very much a plot-and-commentary-driven novel. Whitehead has himself said that his initial idea was of what would happen if the underground railroad had been a real train2. He has also said that this choice to make the fantastical railroad the central element of the book allowed him to play with time and different elements of history3.

The other patrollers were boys and men of bad character; the work attracted a type. In another country they would have been criminals, but this was America.

The book starts at a plantation and shows not only the violence and hatred of the slave owners (the book in general is very violent, with Whitehead including various punishments in a way some primary sources do not, his novel making up for the relative censorship in those books) but the hierarchy and violence that arose as a natural consequence of a situation that caused everyone to be focused on their own survival at the detriment of others. As the train takes Cora – the narrative mostly concerns her – to different Southern States, Whitehead uses these assorted pauses to look at different ideas and acted-out discriminatory practices that were not a part of the exact historical time Cora is living in but were a part of the future decades.

This altering of history creates another fantasy thread in the book, though not nearly as close to ‘fantasy’ as the railroad; Cora steps into situations that you’ll rightly see are at odds with the places that came before it. In one such case, the technology in the State seems too far advanced for a short train journey away. Here, mandatory regular health checks for black people in a state that gives them education, housing (if in a dormitory), and relatively lowly jobs, seem at first a thoughtful acknowledgement of escaped slaves’ trauma… until the doctor offers Cora a not-so-elective-as-described sterilisation, discussing how the state is working on health ideas and performing surgeries on black women who have had a couple of children.

The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom. The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land. She knew the white men bragged about the efficiency of the massacres, where they killed women and babies, and strangled their futures in the crib.

Stolen bodies working stolen land.

Whitehead’s commentary on this and other subjects is incredibly blunt yet never leaves that element of fantasy out; it’s safe to say he’s providing a damning criticism but he does what he can to make you question the reality of different concepts. (Though again, as with the railroad, if your knowledge of American history is solid you’ll probably see a lot more of the facts amongst the fiction without having to look them up.)

And then Whitehead returns to the train and gives you a break for a moment so you can consider what you’ve read and consider what might lay ahead. In a similar way he uses chapter breaks for the different States, and changes the character discussed from Cora to a variety of secondary characters. The novel is written in the third person – with one excellent diversion into first person for Caesar’s story – and mainly concerns Cora; Whitehead changes perspective to give details of a scene that Cora is not privvy to, scenes that further explore the purpose of the novel and add different voices and historical perspectives to it. There are notes about laws, and chapters begin with ‘reward’ notices for anyone who turns in the escaped slave discussed within – these appear to be primary sources.

Backing up the story and the commentary is an unsurprisingly good use of language. Whitehead uses controversial words when warranted; as with everything else this book uses extremes in order to display the history correctly and get to the point.

Certainly you have to suspend some belief for the book – a railroad that stretches for hundreds, maybe thousands of miles, created by slaves and only shut down in sections a long time after it was created (the creation itself being a metaphor) – but no more so than at the end, which will produce in you one (or more) of a few possible conclusions as to what has happened, each in turn adding to the various metaphors and making you question everything you’ve already read.

It’s astounding.

The Underground Railroad is not a book to read with a cosy cup of tea and it’s not one to be rushed (as this library user did when the return date crept up on her). It requires your attention, your time, and in a few places your willingness to search for third-party information. For your efforts you will be handsomely rewarded.

Footnotes

1 The historical reality of the railroad, far from Whitehead’s fantastical re-imagining – that many readers have likened to their initial, childhood, conceptions of it – was a secret network of black people, both free men and women and escaped slaves, as well as supportive white people and Native Americans, who aided the escape of slaves from plantations in the Southern States to states further north, and often as far as Canada. The railroad was a network that traded coded information to allow the movements of escapees to pass between them so that various people could aid their escape – the network had people who would themselves visit plantations, people who would house escapees along their route, and people who would work to disrupt the success of any slave owners or slave catchers from using the law to get people back. I’ve written the basics here – the information in the Wikipedia article on the Underground Railroad should suffice in terms of understanding the background to Whitehead’s re-imagining of the network.
2 ‘Before there was Cora, or any other possible protagonist, I was sittin’ around thinking “What if instead of a metaphor, the Underground Railroad was a real train?” So the concept came first before the characters.’ (Whitehead, 2018)
3 ‘…Once I made the choice to have this central fantastic element of a literal underground railroad, it allowed me to play with time and bring in elements of The Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and things like that.’ (Whitehead, 2016)

Online References

Whitehead, Colson (2016) Colson Whitehead’s Subterranean Odyssey, Electric Literature, accessed 28th October 2018.

Whitehead, Colson (2018) Re: I’m author Colson Whitehead – just another down on his luck carny with a pocketful of broken dreams – AMA, Reddit, accessed 28th October 2018.

Related Books

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