My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Alice in Wonderland is a text that has been subject to a most phenomenal process of transformation from its original publication to date. I suspect that there are very few other children’s texts which have been integrated so wholly into our cultural consciousness; we know of the white rabbit, of the blonde girl in the blue dress, the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat. We know one, or all, of these or other symbols and metaphors from the texts and even if we don’t know the context of these symbols, we know of them. Alice in Wonderland is a text that has been read, consumed, remade and reconsumed a thousand times. It is a text that stands beyond itself now, beyond its initial textual boundaries, and will, I think, continue to do so.
And so, there are many adaptations of it. Many remakings of it. Inevitably, really, what with the text being in the public domain, and thus freely available for adaptation and remixing. Some of these work better than others. All of them continue to perpetuate the ideas of Alice, the shape of her story and the tone of her world, regardless of how effectively they remake and represent their version of the original text. Alice isn’t Alice any more. She is extra-textual and in some instances, almost peritextual.
But here, in this board book, she is perfect. Alison Jay’s version of Alice stopped me in my tracks. Quite literally. I was browsing a display of Alice books in a shop, seeing all the usual suspects, and then I saw Jay’s work. It is a small boardbook, robust as all board books must be, and the cover shows a too big girl staring down at her body with surprise as she struggles to fit inside the room. One arm bends awkwardly against a door; another sprawls out of a window, and all of this is coloured in a sort of delicious sort of fresco, full of gentle warm tones upon a cracked background, as though the image has been painted on a wall and left to soak into the building, to become part of the every day structure of somebody’s life. It is lovely.
The book itself is structured in a series of double page spreads and individual images, each of which is paired with a verb taken from the Alice text: fall, run, drink, shrink, eat, grow, swim, share, smile, party, parade, play, dance, sleep. This final image sees Alice herself fall asleep on the lap of another lady dressed in pink, her skirt flowing across two pages in a rich curve that crosses from corner to corner, and her head hidden by a sunhat. It is an oddly beautiful moment to end the book and one that speaks well of its consideration of its target readership. Books like this are made for sharing, for teaching about books and colours and shapes, and though some of the images are quite abstract and some of the words a little complex when viewed in isolation: ‘share’, this is a book made for reading through in completion and embracing the gentle warmth of that last ‘sleep’ image.
I love board books like this that challenge our concept of what a board book can do. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is constructed as something quite beautiful; a languid, summery exploration of dreaming and of surreal juxtapositions of a beaming cat’s face with the pure precision of ‘smile’. This is a book to return to for quite some years.
In addition to that, I think there’s an element here that would appeal to scholars of Alice. Jay’s distinct emphasis on the dreamlike world of Wonderland is worthy of attention: her shifts in perspective, the subtle shapes of background elements and the way that Alice is very distinctly asleep at the end of it; all of these are elements that suggest something very particular about Alice and what her adventures in Wonderland actually are and have been. This is a book that, the more I look at it, the more I see. I will always stop for books that transform every time I look at them. This is a fascinating thing.