Picturing “Alice in Wonderland”: How Do Child Readers Imagine It?

Tenniel's 's original illustrations from "Alice in Wonderland"

One of John Tenniel’s original illustrations for “Alice in Wonderland” (Cotsen 657)

Alice in Wonderland has been delighting children and grown-ups for over 150 years now. In addition to Lewis Carroll’s text, the illustrations by John Tenniel and other, later illustrators have been a major source of readers’ delight.

Try to imagine Alice without any illustrations of the famous characters and scenes, either by Tenniel or other illustrators. Virtually impossible isn’t it? Carroll himself provided very, very little descriptive detail, if you actually look at his text. So our sense of how Alice and all the inhabitants of Wonderland look is strongly conditioned by illustration, when you stop to think about it. Textual and visual elements of Alice seem inseparably intertwined, with the illustrations shaping meaning, extending it, and sometimes commenting ironically on the text. Tenniel’s Queen of Hearts and Mad Hatter look comically absurd, rather than menacing or hostile, illustration leavening the tone of the words, which can be quite edgy, or even scary, all by themselves.

Professional illustrators have been reimagining Alice in new versions since the nineteenth century, including names like Arthur Rackham, Willy Pogány, Ralph Steadman, or Salvador Dali. (Yes, Dali did have a go at illustrating Alice, in his own distinctive style! More on that “curiosity” in a later posting.). The flood of the new illustrations shows no sign of abating in the twenty-first century either, based on recent editions.

Cheshire Cat (detail) by Lesley Young

“Cipher Alice” Cheshire Cat (detail) by Lesley Young (Cotsen 20836).


Another “Cipher Alice” Cheshire Cat (detail) by Lee MacArthur & David Dansey (Cotsen 20836).

But it’s worth remembering that adults haven’t been the only illustrators of Alice. Generations of children have reimagined Alice in their own pictures, mostly unpublished, but some have found their way into various publications. For instance, the Cipher Alice — a coded version of the story based on the Telegraph Cipher devised by Carroll — credits some twenty-six ten- and eleven-year old children as illustrators (in addition to twenty-nine named “code checkers” for the coder cipher text), all of whom were students at the Edward Peake Middle School in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, England in 1990, when the book was printed by L & T Press, Ltd.


Alice & the “Drink Me” bottle, by Louise Lawson.

The students’ graphic renderings vary in style and sophistication, but all display the obvious pleasure that children have taken in Alice since 1865. Louise Lawson, for instance, pictures Alice as a smiling little girl with huge bow on her hair, wearing a variation of Alice’s traditional pinafore emblazoned with a super-hero’s “W” (“Wonderland”) and the name “Alice” added on her apron, just for good measure. She chooses to depict Alice theatrically holding up the “Drink Me” bottle at the beginning of her Wonderland adventures.

The book’s Preface, by supervising grown-up, Edward Wakeling, notes that the Cipher Alice was produced for the Alice 125 Project of the Carroll Foundation, Australia, which attempted “to set a world record for the number of different languages version of the same book.” Interest in Alice was indeed world-wide in 1990, and if anything, it has become even more so in 2016 (Alice 150), with the book having been translated into more than 170 languages in countless editions!

But as in so many editions of Alice, I think the illustrations in the Cipher Alice are “the thing” (with apologies to Hamlet), so I’d like to share some others with you. It’s one my very favorite editions, since it shows how child-readers responded to Alice. I also like the way that different children sometimes imagined quite different depictions of the same scene — there’s no one, “right” way to depict Alice, as the many different versions over the last 150 years have shown us! The illustrations are simply terrific fun to see too! (Click on any thumbnail image to see a larger version.)

Down into Wonderland via a tunnel-like maelstrom... Past curious things on the way

Down into Wonderland via a tunnel-like maelstrom… past curious things on the way.


Descending into Wonderland via a bucket in a well… Past dinosaur fossils on the way!


Alice and the White Rabbit “after the fall” — Alice looks distinctly unhappy (and wears a name-tag).


Alice (wearing a “Cool” tee-shirt) as she shrinks, becoming too small to reach the key on the table.


Tiny Alice after shrinking too small to reach the door key on the (now giant-sized) table.


The Mad Hatter (price tag in his hatband) with a hot-dog, a coke, and an earring!


Alice and a mustachioed caterpillar, who also wears a monocle and smokes a gentleman’s pipe.


Alice (with a name-tag), an unusual-looking White Rabbit, and the Court of the Queen of Hearts.


“You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” –Alice. (And how about the Hatter’s outfit shown here?)

How do these illustrations compare with how you visualize Alice, Wonderland, and its inhabitants?

If you’d like to see more illustrations of Alice, Wonderland, and all its inhabitants, come visit the exhibition now in the Cotsen Gallery: “Alice, after Alice: Adaptation, Illustration, and the ‘Alice Industry’!”

Alice after "Alice" at Cotsen Library

Alice after “Alice” Exhibition at the Cotsen Library:
April 15–July 15, 2016
Free & Open to the Public, Daily 9-5


Alice’s Adventures in a Fore-edge Painting


Frontispiece (signed by Dalziel) and title page of Cotsen 30998 (protective tissue not shown).

One of Cotsen’s numerous editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has an especially attractive feature. Our copy of an 1877 reprint (London: Macmillan and Co.) of the 1866 first edition contains a particularly attractive fore-edge painting:

When this gilded fore-edge is fanned in a downward direction, a painting is revealed

When this gilded fore-edge is fanned in a downward direction, a painting is revealed:



Contemporary bookbinders, publishers, and printers, Maclaren & Macniven’s (Edinburgh) binder’s stamp can still be made out on the front free endpaper verso. Since we know they are responsible for the excellent ruled and gilt-stamped red morocco binding, gilt-tooled dentelles and marbled endpapers, it’s reasonable to assume that they are responsible for the fore-edge painting as well; especially because gilt is typically applied to edges after such a treatment in order to protect and conceal it.

Though not exactly alike (and obviously in color), the painting resembles Tenniel’s original illustration found on page 97:

Vignette, page 97

Vignette, page 97

Though fore-edge marking and devices have been found in manuscripts as early as the 10th Century, disappearing fore-edge paintings (like the one above) seem to have been developed some time in the mid 17th Century. Most surviving examples are English and were produced in the late 19th Century. Exceedingly rare, this is Cotsen’s only example in the collection.

If you want even more Alice (and who doesn’t?) join us in celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with our newest exhibition curated by our Rare Books Cataloger, Jeff Barton: