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 Generations of children have reimagined Alice in their own pictures, mostly unpublished, but some have found their way into various publications.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


Marks in Books 3: An Alphabet Decorated with Stick Figures

According to the 6th edition of John Carter’s essential ABC for Book Collectors (1980),  “condition” in book collector’s mind “means a good deal more than the volume’s superficial, physical appearance; for the term covers the completeness and integrity of the contents, a proper degree of margin, etc., as well as the beauty or appropriateness or originality, and the state of preservation of the covering.”

Children’s books obviously weren’t on Carter’s radar screen, because if you want to collect historical children’s books, almost nothing comes up to the gold standard.

"Nye Billed=A,B,C for Børn," page 1 with 'annotations'

“Nye Billed=A,B,C for Børn,” page 1 with ‘annotation’

Take the Danish alphabet book, Nye Billed=A,B,C for Børn [New Illustrated ABC for Children] (Alborg, 1778), in the Cotsen Children’s Library. It is one of the earliest alphabets of proper names I’ve ever seen and unusual for having been designed as a set of little picture cards, which were probably supposed to be cut apart for teaching reading.  This alphabet passes the rarity test: when I couldn’t find a description of it, I wrote to a Danish colleague for help.  She was absolutely thrilled, because she had never heard of it either.

Many collectors would never consider giving shelf space to a scruffy pamphlet bound in wrappers of a thickish paper the color of burned oatmeal.  To add injury to insult, most of the pages have been scrawled upon.  None of it could be dignified  with the term “marginalia.”  But look closely at the “annotations” and you will find some absolutely delightful stick figures interacting with the illustrations.  If given a choice between a pristine copy and this one covered with doodles, there’s no question in my mind which one is in superior condition…

Page 3: The letter J, as annotated.

Page 3: The letter J, as ‘annotated.’

Page 3: More 'annotations'

Page 3: More ‘annotations.’

Page 4: Even more 'annotations'

Page 4: Even more ‘annotations.’


Detail of 'annotation' for the Letter N

Page 4: The Letter N, as ‘annotated.’