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Top 100 Children’s Novels #31: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

#31 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
58 points

A full out absurdist assault at the arbitrary nature of language, Carroll challenges everything about the way we speak and write, from homonyms to idioms. When people talk about children’s movies and books being entertaining for both kids and adults, they usually mean that there are jokes that are way over the heads of the child audience that adults will find funny. The beauty of this novel is that the same exact jokes are equally entertaining to children and adults, often for the same reason, although in some cases adults may understand more clearly why they are funny. It is almost impossible to believe that this novel was written almost 150 years ago, as it remains one of the truly brilliant, and accessible pieces of children’s literature. – Mark Flowers

Because these books freakily enough do look a great deal like the inside of my head. – Amy M. Weir

One comment about your request to try to include more diversity: I considered it pretty seriously, as I am Latina and that kind of thing matters a lot to me. And after looking at my bookshelves, both at home and in my classroom, I concluded that there just isn’t enough out there in middle-grade land yet. In terms of Hispanic or Latino literature, that is. Everything I came up with, including books by Julia Alvarez, Margarita Engle and Pam Munoz Ryan felt good, but perhaps not quite good enough for my top 10. And it may be that for this kind of list, we go with books that we remember from childhood, or books we’ve reread hundreds of times over the years, and there just isn’t as much that’s been available for that long. I realized that almost all the books that I look to as inspiring examples of Latino culture and experience are by adult or YA authors, which I thought was interesting. Just an observation. – Cecilia Cackley

I include Cecilia’s comment (which really was her comment for this book) because it brings up an interesting point.  It’s important to look at the representation of race on this book, and to see whether or not all cultures have at least some representation.  Not so much?  Can we infer something from that, good or bad?

Don’t be thinking that the recent 100+ million dollar grossing Tim Burton film played any part in this appearance on the poll, by the way.  Folks were voting for this book long before the Burton ads reached their peak.  People just love them some Alice.  And how can I object?  I love her too.  She’s like Dorothy, only she never seems to care whether or not she gets home.

The description of these books’ plots from the publisher reads, “Alice begins her adventures when she follows the frantically delayed White Rabbit down a hole into the magical world of Wonderland, where she meets a variety of wonderful creatures, including Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts who, with the help of her enchanted deck of playing cards, tricks Alice into playing a bizarre game of croquet.  Alice continues her adventures in Through the Looking-Glass, which is loosely based on a game of chess and includes Carroll’s famous poem Jabberwocky.”

Foul play, cry the masses. Two books as one? ‘Fraid so. Considering that half the time these books are packaged together as one, I felt few qualms putting them together. Most of the votes were for the two of them anyway, so what does it matter really?

The double quicktime recap of how the books came to be comes via Anita Silvey’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book.  “The book originated as a tale invented by Oxford don Charles Dodgson for the three Liddell children on a boat trip.  Since Alice Liddell begged him to write down the saga, he did so and chose Lewis Carroll as his pen name.”  Badda bing, badda boom.

University of California at Berkeley Professor Alison Gopnik summarizes one of the charms of the book quite well.  “I think every scientist and every child is the grave, wide-eyed little girl who fearlessly follows evidence and logic wherever it leads – even through the looking-glass and down the rabbit hole.”

Alice is one of those cases where you just don’t know where to start when writing a little recap like this. There’s just so MUCH information. You may as well just pick up a copy of Brian Talbott’s fantastic Alice in Sunderland and read that instead. That’ll cover a good chunk of your Alice basics. After that there’s The Annotated Alice to read (the most recent edition if it’s handy). And maybe you could join the Lewis Carroll Society here in America.  I wonder if their numbers have spiked recently . . .

And then there’s the whole was-he-a-sicko-or-wasn’t-he? question surrounding Mr. Dodgson. A recent book came out on the topic and was quite the topic of conversation on the child_lit listserv too. The novel Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin was covered on NPR but not really critiqued by an Alice scholar.  Most objections point out that when he took photographs of Alice it was always with grown-ups present and with the permission of the family. Also, the Victorians were just weird. Not just this guy.  It’s a debate, certainly.

On the children’s literature side of the equation there are multiple different editions of Alice out there. I’ve always been rather partial to the Helen Oxenbury ones (though I know more than one detractor who refers to those books as GAP Alice). Recently there was the lamentable (sorry teenage fans) Looking Glass Wars and the surprisingly good graphic novel Wonderland which takes the point of view of the rabbit’s maid MaryAnn.  I keep putting that graphic novel out for folks to look at and it gets snatched up double quick time!

On the National Book Foundation site author Richard Peck (I came this close to typing Gregory Peck, which I’m sure would please him) gives a lovely personal recollection of his first encounter with Alice.

You can view a whole bunch of different artists’ interpretations of Alice here.  It would be a touch difficult to show every Alice cover in creation.  Here then is a nice smattering to give you a taste of the whole.  Note when the books list the title as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and when they simply say “Alice in Wonderland”.  This is but a small sampling of the whole.

There are lots of movie versions of Alice too, so how to choose?  To begin with, here’s a silent film circa 1903. As you can see, it’s fairly self-explanatory.

We follow this up with a 1933 film.

It’s 1983. You are producing a PBS special production of Alice. You cast an oddly older woman in the lead. So whom do you give a starring song to? Would you believe a young Nathan Lane?

And since last we posted about this Tim Burton made a kind of sequel to it.  Ho hum.

And last but not least, the Royal Ballet came up with a new work based on Alice in Wonderland that is certainly worth watching.  Just fun.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I should say that Cecilia’s comment was at the end of her ballot, so I stuck it in the spread sheet next to the last one. I did want it to get noticed, and it’s as good here as anywhere. Especially next to a classic like Alice (which I personally hated as a child. Kind of funny, since as an adult I have been a math instructor like Lewis Carroll and also get migraines, like Lewis Carroll. So I have more appreciation for it now). I hope that 30 years from now, more diversity would naturally come up in a poll like this, when today’s kids reflect on what they’ve read. (And we need to check if the kids’ results were any more diverse.)

  2. Last poll this was either #26 or #27, and I thought it was TOO LOW, but this time it’s even dropped a few points and I don’t care so much– I’m just relieved to finally see one of my own votes hit the Novels list! I changed my votes around a little this time, and I think I’ve got a bunch up in the top 10 and a bunch that are just not going to make the list at all. Oh well.