“Once Upon New Times”: An Exhibition of Retold Classics in the Cotsen Gallery Through March 2024

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

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

The best stories have always lent themselves to retelling, reillustration, or transformation into new formats and there’s a new display of some wonderful reimaginings–some of them surprises, some old friends–on display in Cotsen now through March.  It’s the first exhibition in the gallery since the pandemic, so please come see magic lantern slides of Barrie’s Peter Pan, a very early set of Walt Disney’s figurines of Snow White and the seven dwarves based on the famous animated film, Beatrix Potter’s unpublished version of Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, a new take on Humpty Dumpty by Dan Santat, a growth chart inspired by the Brothers’ Grimm’s “Bremen Town Musicians,” a “Stone Soup” card game, a “Jack and the Bean Stalk” Lego set,  and Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland adapted for kamishibai, a form of Japanese street theater and “translated” into the author’s cipher code and reillustrated by school children.  The last item was on exhibition in the 2016 show “Alice after Alice,” which was curated by Jeff Barton, Cotsen’s rare book cataloger.  Here’s his post about about how children redrew famous characters in Alice.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Banning YA Books

The clashes between  my mother and a librarian over access to potentially objectionable books sound impossibly quaint now. My mother’s observation to me that the books in the children’s section weren’t challenging enough was a directive to explore the adult section of the Manhattan Beach Public Library.  I sneaked  past the circulation desk to avoid the disapproving Mrs. Brown and slithered into the W-Zs of adult fiction. The authors’ names on the spines were unfamiliar, but “Wodehouse” on a top shelf caught my eye and I pulled out one of the misadventures of Bertie Wooster, complete with gaspers,  cocktails, and morning-after cures.  I was allowed to check it out, but then I hadn’t handed over The Portrait of Dorian Grey.  Another time Mrs. Brown refused to let me have a book from the adult section until she spoke with my mother, who coolly confirmed that I had her permission. Mrs. Brown pulled a sour face while the transaction was completed.

I have no idea what Mrs. Brown would have made of the new policy of the Hamilton East Public Library in Indianapolis to relocate sexually explicit YA books to which parents have objections to the adult section. In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal,  Daniel Lee looked at this “culture-war skirmish,” which John Green, the beloved Indianapolis writer whose acclaimed YA novels  Looking for Alaska and The Fault Is in Our Stars were targeted, denounced  the move as “political theater of the lowest and most embarrassing order.”

Green’s novels, which feature young characters struggling with class conflict, dysfunctional families, terminal illness, and chronic depression, who also chain-smoke, experiment with sex, binge-drink and drive,  Lee suggested, would not have resonated with Booth Tarkington’s Penrod, whose Hoosier boyhood in the early twentieth century was unmarked by any trauma more devastating than surviving cotillions.  Penrod, says Lee, “knew which bathroom to use.”    He continues:

Yes, some young people today are in terrible situations.  But it seems profoundly pessimistic—and ideologically loaded—to think most kids don’t live lives much like Penrod’s and worse, that they lack parents who are eager and competent to help when trouble comes.

Unfortunately, coverage of book bannings in public schools and libraries often contain glib comparisons, which score points at the expense of oversimplifying the difficulty of judging the contents of the books in contention.  Lee’s description of Penrod suggests he didn’t read Tarkington very carefully or he might have noticed that this once classic American novel about boyhood contains any number of awkward situations similar to Tom Sawyer or Peck’s Bad Boy that don’t involve precocious sexual activity.

The cotillion episode, which Lee considered anodyne, is a good example of Penrod acting on impulse for purely selfish reasons.  The day of the cotillion he discovers a basket of expired medicines, dentifrices, hair oil, condiments gone off, etc. in the stable put out for the trash.  After he and his friend Sam set up a drug store to fill prescriptions, Sam mixes up some “small pox medicine” using the contents of the basket and part of a bottle of licorice water to make it look palatable.  Penrod’s dog Duke the tester can’t keep it down and the boys dream of administering a dose to Professor Bartlett, which would lead to the cotillion’s cancellation.  Instead their frenemy Maurice Levy saunters by.  Penrod resorts to a desperate measure to take out Maurice, so he, with two left feet, can squire the adored Marjorie Jones and hand off his partner Baby Rennsdale to Sam, whose fair lady has had to send regrets.  Maurice is invited to drink as much licorice water as he can in one pull and the bottle of small pox medicine is substituted for the real one.   He swallows it all, has a smoke, and heads home without exhibiting any ill effects to change for cotillion.

Left unsupervised to an extent unimaginable today, eleven-year-old Penrod has acted on enough ideas like this one to have earned the reputation as the worst boy in town.  His family worries that he is headed for the penitentiary.  The ladies in town tut-tut about the ineffectual Schofields when his  mother and sister aren’t present.  Certain families forbid their sons to associate with him.  His peers, on the other hand, take vicarious pleasure in his antics, like talking back to the teacher and managing to elude punishment temporarily with the claim he was exhausted from comforting his distraught aunt, who has taken refuge from her drunken, abusive husband with the Schofields.   A tall tale  inspired by the silent film he watched when he should have been in Sunday school.

If Penrod’s reputation was affected by his friendship with the Black brothers, Herman and Verman, who live in the nearby alley, Tarkington didn’t come out and say so.  What strikes us now are the ambiguities of the power dynamics between the white boy and two “darkies.”  Verman suffers from ankyloglossia and his words have to be translated by his older brother Herman.  Herman is missing a forefinger, because his little brother chopped it off with an axe when told to as a joke. The boys’ father is in jail term for stabbing a man with a pitchfork.  Penrod finds  Herman and Verman so fascinating that he immediately proposes to Sam they could be the star attractions of a show.

Equally troubling  is the Rupe Collins episode.  An older white boy from the wrong side of town comes around to play, which means he bullies and tortures Penrod and Sam.  Verman whacks Rupe with a board to make him stop and gets called the N-word.  Herman tells Rupe to lay off his brothers and his friends, setting off a terrific fight, in which the rules of fair play are suspended, while Penrod and Sam watch on the sidelines. Verman opens hostilities by striking Rupe with a rake because in “his simple, direct, African way, he wished to kill his enemy…and to kill him as soon as possible.”  The brawl comes to an end when Herman grabs a scythe and threatens to cut out Rupe’s gizzard and eat it.  It was probably trash talk, but Penrod and Sam are too shaken by the brothers’ “unctuous merriment” after their victory to say thank you.

Tarkington’s Penrod can’t be characterized as a book written back in the good old days when children were still innocent a hundred years ago.  Daniel Lee’s assertion in the Wall Street Journal that in the novel still reflects the circumstances of many children’s lives today was an oversimplification supporting the comforting illusion that classic books are alternatives to contemporary problem YA novels which hold up a mirror to contemporary teenagers” lives.  However excessive realism is defined, the line where it crosses over to the exploitative is always being redrawn in contemporary discussions. But the analysis will be more productive the more carefully the books in question are studied.

Yes, critical race theory is integral to George M. Johnson’s manifesto-memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue. The author’s search for a meaningful, fulfilled sex life as a gay man is too, but that account, which is not overly graphic, occupies far fewer pages than you might expect, given the book’s notoriety.   What the book’s critics neglect to say (probably because they haven’t read it), is that it’s also a warm, loving tribute to the Black family that had his back while he was growing up painfully conscious of being different and unsure where he belonged.  The book is worth reading just for the portrait of his Nana, with whom he was very close, or his memories of jumping Double Dutch with the girls, to mention just two passages.  Don’t damn a book without giving the author a chance and don’t praise it without a detailed sense of how the strengths and weaknesses may be intertwined.  Regardless of when a book was written, it is probably more complex than its reputation.