Meaningful Children’s Books

Hello, I just finished one physical book that was comprised of two stories, originally two separate books at their time of publication. Both are technically a sort of children’s book, so I’m going to go ahead and say that I finished book(s) #23.5 today. (I’ve been thinking about a solution to this problem for way too long, so let’s just run with it.) To make up for the other ½ book, I’m going to reread a short book, also kind of meant for children/young adults – one that I haven’t read for close to 10 years. So, book #23.5: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, both by Lewis Carroll.

I’ve owned these stories for a really long time, and I’m not sure why I never read them. It was interesting to read the origins of something that has been appropriated and referenced so heavily – I felt weird about everything unfolding in the way I expected and knew it would, but also trying to draw new conclusions.

I probably should have been expecting this, based on the animated Disney adaptation, but both of these stories, at face value, read like a “baby’s-first-chapter-book.” I guess because of all of the prevalent references made to this novel, and the huge amount of attention that has been paid to it by all kinds of people, scholarly and celebrity both, I expected something different, or at least more “grown up.”

And I’m mostly referring to the adaptations and their heavy relation to drugs. I took a “Writers on Drugs” class (I really did, Loren Glass teaches it at Iowa, take it if you can), and I don’t know if that’s why I expected something different from these books. AAIW was referenced in that class, and that Jefferson Airplane song pretty explicitly links the story with drug use… and I guess when you read the “White Rabbit” lyrics, or take a step back and just think about the stories, it seems obviously related to drugs. But while I was reading everything, even the caterpillar smoking a hookah and acting stoned, it somehow still seemed completely childlike and innocent.

I guess this childlike, nonsense content paired with general adult content might kind of be exactly the point. Either way, I think the stories do more than warrant all the attention they garnered, right when they were published and in the century since. The books are riddled with riddles (ha), puns, nonsense, over-the-top emotions, pointless games, and overall a series of seemingly random sequences of events that, both times, end up being a dream.

It’s the battle between childhood and adulthood, imagination versus reality, what’s real and what matters. Again, on the surface it’s a children’s book, and as a children’s book it’s still incredibly entertaining. There are riddles, intense imagery, and so much amazing wordplay.

But then, Carroll somehow makes this children’s book about wanting what you can’t have, and growing up too fast. Ultimately, the injustices of not being able to appreciate the perfection of childhood until the privileges that come with it have been revoked with age. It’s great, and sad, and clever, and everything I’ve said about it so far is still an enormous simplification of how awesome these stories are.

Reading up on some of the back story of Carroll though, and his inspiration for Alice, makes me kind of uncomfortable. What did a genius mathematician, logic-obsessed, middle-aged man gain from hanging out with young girls? The accounts I read of Carroll’s friendship with Alice Liddell, the 8-year-old girl whom the Alice of the story is based on, are innocent. And maybe they were, but it also raises questions. Carroll was obviously infatuated with childhood, so it makes sense that he would spend time around those experiencing it firsthand. And I guess it worked, him being so close to his inspiration, because these stories were great on a lot of levels.

This is kind of a loosely related side note, but my edition was published by Barnes & Noble Classics. I own a lot of these Barnes & Noble Classics books, because I went through a phase where every single time they were having a “Buy Two Get The Third FREE” deal (aka every other week) I convinced myself that it was fate intervening and always picked out at least three to add to my collection, sometimes six.

Anyway, the introductions in these editions have always been really interesting and informative, but I like to save them for the end. They usually discuss the main themes and points of action in the novels, and give me new ways to think about them. But reading them before I start the book usually renders all the great information useless, because I haven’t yet experienced the characters or plot points that they discuss.

So I’ll sign off with an inevitably disregarded open letter to Barnes & Noble Classics: you should publish your introductions as conclusions. And everyone else: if you haven’t yet, you should read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. ◊

‘I can’t believe that!” said Alice. ‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’ Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’ ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'”

– page 207

And though the shadow of a sigh / May tremble through the story, / For ‘happy summer days gone by, / And vanish’d summer glory— / It shall not touch with breath of bale, / The pleasance of our fairy-tale.”

– page 152

The principal dream of most children—the dream within the dream, as it were—is the dream of not dreaming any longer, the dream of growing up. For the adult, the outlook is reversed.”

– Tan Lin, page xii,

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