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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.

 
 

Jeanne

December 12, 2018, 9:28 pm

I got out books (from our children’s book collection) for my kids as they seemed interested, which was often at least five years before the standard “recommendations” for modern American children. Of course, I was willing to read the books out loud to them, which means they can enjoy books way beyond their own reading level. I believe in inundating kids with good books and letting them choose. That way no one book has too big a part of their imagination.
For nieces, nephews, and children of friends, I give books at least 5 years ahead because my friends and relatives can read them out loud and/or let the kids grow into them. There’s nothing worse, in my experience, than being given a book that you consider “too young” for you.

Jenny @ Reading the End

December 13, 2018, 11:59 pm

I think I read this book when I was eight or nine — I remember asking my mom about it, because I knew it was famous, and she said she didn’t think I would like it. So I think I partly liked it just to prove her wrong. She now has no memory of this and doesn’t know what would have made her past self think it wasn’t for me. :p

Tracy Terry

December 14, 2018, 4:02 pm

Hmm! Interesting.

It brings to mind a recent debate; the topic of which was should books be given an age rating similar to those awarded to films/

I guess I’d need to take several things into consideration … the age at which that child was reading, how emotionally mature they were, the list goes on.

Then of course there’s the whole debate about whether books should be changed to appeal to more modern sensibilities.

A thought provoking post to be sure, thank you.

Alice

January 1, 2019, 12:19 pm

I think, as you’ve said, it depends on the child. I know if I had read it (as opposed to having it read to me) at that age I would have had nightmares. Maybe it depends on how much the child reads. My friend’s son reads all the HP books at 10 so I would feel comfortable giving the book to him, but not his younger sister who isn’t into reading.

Interesting topic!

4 Comments

 
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