Fiona Dunbar writes children's fiction; she is the author of, among other titles, the Lulu Baker trilogy, recently adapted for CBBC as Jinx, and the Silk Sisters trilogy. The first two titles in a forthcoming series of mystery stories featuring Kitty Slade, a girl who sees ghosts, are to be published by Orchard Books in 2011. Fiona left school at sixteen, did a foundation course in art, then took a job as a commercial artist. She worked as a freelance illustrator for a number of years, before moving to New York and becoming a full-time mum. Her first novel for children was published in 2004. She now lives in London with her husband and two children. Here Fiona writes about Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland.
Fiona Dunbar on Alice's Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Where to start? Lewis Carroll's preposterous fantasy is so thoroughly embedded in my consciousness, it's hard to know where it all began. But like Alice I am determined to the point of stubbornness, so I will try. I don't know how old I was when I first read this book. As with many of my favourite children's books, I probably got to know it even better when I became a parent myself. Before that, it was just sort of there. Everywhere. In assorted book formats, film, art, TV, cartoons... some good, some dire.
To be honest, I didn't attempt to read it aloud to my kids; had I done so, I suspect there might have been some fidgeting because, let's face it, as J.K. Rowling and Stephen Fry once discussed, it isn't the most kiddy-friendly of children's books - not for 21st century readers, anyway. Fry went so far as to say it's only admired by adult readers, and in terms of straightforward cover-to-cover reading there may be some truth in that. (My own way of sharing it with my kids, incidentally, was on car journeys via the brilliant audio book narrated by Fiona Shaw. It got re-played countless times; much as I pride myself on my acting abilities, that Fiona - and accompanying sound effects - does a far better job than this one ever could.) What I think kids do appreciate about this book is the bizarre world down the rabbit-hole, where pretty much anything goes. I think they identify with Alice, because to a small child, the world of adults is a bewildering place, full of seemingly arbitrary rules and strange rituals. Some of the jokes may go over their heads, but they appreciate it none the less for all that.
So, as with any (justifiable) assertion that the story lacks a discernible plot, to say it's too sophisticated for kids is to miss the point. It is so startlingly original, so hilariously imaginative, that we can just throw out the rulebook and say It Doesn't Matter. You just know that Lewis Carroll was chuckling away to himself as he dreamt it up, having a whale of a time (no doubt a singing whale, doing whatever is the cetacean equivalent of the lobster quadrille). It is surrealism from long before there was a Surrealist movement.
Alice's adventure is engaging right from the start. Bemused though she is at finding herself in a world where rabbits talk, cakes make you change size, and people play croquet with flamingos, her calm, plucky acceptance of these things is something I've always found appealing. Only once is she overcome with grief at her plight: when she is nine feet tall and has no idea how to return to normal. After that she's quite fearless, ready to take on pretty much anything; she is, dare I say it, feisty. The idea of a feisty heroine has latterly become a bit of a cliché (as if anyone would write a children's book with a lethargic, passive protagonist) but Alice was feisty long before the term became so fashionable. Unfazed by the extremely intimidating Queen of Hearts, she answers her back; then, when the enraged queen starts screaming 'off with her head!' Alice silences her with a defiant 'Nonsense!'
She is intelligent, too: a precocious seven-and-a-half-year-old who is nevertheless not entirely sure of her knowledge. This is an endearing trait, and her naïve attempts to make sense of absurd situations make them all the more hilarious - as when, tumbling through the rabbit-hole, she wonders if she might reach the 'Antipathies', or whether a mouse that ignores her might be 'a French mouse, come over with William the Conqueror'.
Similarly, when the Duchess asserts that if everyone minded their own business, 'the world would go around a deal faster than it does', Alice tries to explain the havoc that would wreak on the diurnal system: 'You see the earth takes twenty-four hours to turn round on its axis' and the Duchess interrupts: 'Talking of axes: chop off her head!' Ah yes, the wordplay: you either love it or loathe it. I'm in the former camp: I love the idea that mock turtle soup would, of course, be made from a mock turtle - and that this mock turtle might be depressed at not being a real one. I love that he learned 'reeling and writhing' in school, and that maths consisted of 'Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision'.
Two things that mustn't go without mention when discussing this book: John Tenniel's marvellous illustrations, and Lewis Carroll's second Alice book, Through The Looking-Glass.
I love the drawings. They are brilliantly executed, witty and grotesque. The faces - from the sublimely ugly Quentin Matsys-inspired Duchess, to the horsey features of the Mad Hatter - are unforgettable, and no fish footman or Jabberwocky is a challenge too far.
A picture book I once wrote and illustrated, Under The Stairs, was probably inspired as much by Tenniel as it was by Carroll himself - with a bit of Maurice Sendak thrown in. It depicted Sophie, a small girl bored among adults, who goes for a wander into the cupboard under the stairs. This was something my brother and I used to do; in our house this cupboard had a tiny little door at the far end, so we made up adventure stories as we journeyed through it. In my book, the objects in the cupboard come to life, so Sophie encounters Tenniswellies, the Golflogog (an upside-down creature who pleads with Sophie to help him to his feet, only to reward her by showering her with golf-balls). There are Brush-hogs, Sneezing Duster-Birds and, of course, a Hooversaurus.
There have been influences in my longer fiction, too: one character from The Truth Cookie comes especially to mind. There's a scene in which my protagonist, Lulu, comes upon a very odd-looking bookshop. She is seeking refuge - and yes, she is curious. The shop appears to have no name: just a hand-written sign on the door saying 'Out to Lunch, Back in 5 mins'. This turns out to be the names of the two owners, Otto Lunch and Bockin Smins. Mr Lunch is indignant when Lulu asks how anyone's supposed to find a book in this shop, which is very untidy. The reason he's so appalled at the idea, it turns out, is that in this shop, books find people, not the other way round. It is, in fact, where a very strange recipe book literally falls into Lulu's hands... yes, you can see the influence, can't you? Though none of this was conscious at the time.
Finally, Through the Looking-Glass. I do not like this book as much, I have to say, even though Jabberwocky is my favourite piece of nonsense verse ever, bar none. Those slithy toves gyring and gimbling in the wabe! Those mome-raths outgribbing! Who among us has not stood in uffish thought, or craved a vorpal sword? It's magnificent. I like the Walrus and the Carpenter, too. But the giant chess-board, Humpty Dumpty... I find some of it a bit tedious, and it seems to lack quite the range and magic of the first book. Great concept, though: the alternate world on the other side of the mirror. In fact I've just remembered something else; a satirical cartoon strip I once did for a magazine called Bitch, entitled Alice in Tabloid-Land; it followed the adventures of my protagonist after she was engulfed by a copy of the Daily Mirror. Curiouser and curiouser, indeed.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]