THE LIBRARY OBSERVATIONS
I was interested in finding out whether the obsession with Alice was genuinely childlike; are children really enthralled by Alice or do adults just imagine they are as an excuse to be so themselves? As an observation I went to the local library to watch reactions of children and their parents when I purposely put various copies of Alice in Wonderland out in prominent view. One copy was illustrated by Scott McKowen, another by Helen Oxenbury, and a third by John Tenniel. The Scott McKowen version had what looked like woodcuts but may well have been computerised versions of such, and the Helen Oxenbury version was her usual style of quite sweet, colourful watercolours, and quite modern. I placed them in the junior library at eye level for a child. The results were quite interesting.
Firstly, I was very surprised by how empty the junior library was. I was there most of the day but there were never ten people in the room, on average four at once. Nobody took out the Alice books, although a few looked at them. The most interest was shown by girls, who would flick through the books but usually replace them. A few times the books were put back properly, so that just the spines were showing, which I had to fix afterwards. One girl removed the Scott McKowen version and sat down to flick through it, seemingly just to look at the illustrations, and then put it back after about ten minutes. She was about ten, and her face didn't look too excited. It seemed as if she knew the story well anyway, which was probably the case.
The most interest the Helen Oxenbury version had was from a mother of a very small girl, who picked it up, looked through it and tried to make her child read it but the child just ignored it and ran away again.
Left three different copies of Alice out in the junior section of Hornsey Library. Library virtually empty except for a father reading to hos two very small daughters.
Small girl, about 7, picks up Oxenbury book, flicks through and puts it down again
Little boy (roughly 10) picks it up to move it aside. (I later replaced it.)
Girl (roughly 10) takes Scott McKowen version, sits on window ledge and flicks through it. Doesn't read, but seems to like the illustrations. She put it back after about ten minutes.
Three girls looking round, all roughly 12 years old. One picks up Oxenbury version, comments on nice illustrations to her friend, who looks at it and shrugs noncommittally. First puts it back. They later took out a book by Hilary McKay.
Mother of very small girl (about 3) picks up Helen Oxenbury book. Flicks through and calls her child- 'Look, Alice in Wonderland, you like Alice, don't you?' Child arrives, says yes, looks through disinterested, drops it and runs off. Mother picks up, flicks through and puts it back properly, with just its spine showing. (I put it back the way I had it afterward.)
A father looks through Oxenbury version and puts it back, properly again.
Found same father. Asked him which did he prefer? He said the McKowen version, as it was more in keeping with the original Tenniel version, which he hadn't seen in the library. Still McKowen version not enough pictures. Didn't feel 'wondrous'.
Oxenbury: Felt it would be more appealing to children, but he disliked the pictures: Alice looks younger, has a short jumper-skirt, looks more slovenly than Tenniel's Alice. In a couple pictures her skirt is up and knickers exposed. Did he feel this was inappropriate? 'Maybe not in this context but maybe....' He still felt the skirt should be as normal, as in the traditional version.
Tracked down a mother. Asked her the same. She preferred Oxenbury version as it was more lively and would appeal more to her daughter. Has more in common with modern little girls and is happier, easier to relate to.
Asked: would her son like it?
'No, he thinks Alice in Wonderland is too girly, won't watch film.' (her son was about 7, her daughter about 4)
Asked librarian if many people withdrew Alice in Wonderland. He said occasionally, but not often. Reckons everyone knows story/ already has it/ has the film at home. Sees that parents are more interested in the book.
Still no action- nobody withdrawing any version. I leave library.
This research led me to believe part of the fascination with Alice is in the memory of adults, and it isn't that interesting to average children today. The reasons for this are many. Probably they most know the story, which was alluded to again when I asked the librarian if many people withdrew Alice anymore, or perhaps they identified with the film more, as a be-all and end-all of the Alice visual world. The fading interest in Alice by children can be said to be less to do with the actual ageing of the Alice stories, and more to do with their actual success. Alice was like a freedom fighter for childrens' minds, freeing them to think for themselves and imagine new worlds of fantasy. This also freed childrens' writers, who could also flex their imaginative muscles anew. Practically all successful childrens' books are fantastical nowadays; this wouldn't have been possible had it not been for Alice ushering this new age of thought. (Pearson, 2011) As a result, Alice's original Adventures do seem a little quaint and restrained now, compared with modern works of fantasy which have a lot more action, but she cannot be forgotten, as she was the first. Children's' fading interest in her is in fact proof of her success. And more authors have been inspired to follow up on Alice, making her more exciting to modern children, such as the brilliant trilogy by Frank Beddor, The Looking Glass Wars. (Appendix 4 p.3)
Perhaps, also, childrens' senses are so overstimulated by excessive colour, noise and drama in their entertainment that they fail to be amused by the original Alice, which is certainly more subtle and toned down than modern childrens' literature or entertainment. But that would be a whole different topic.