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Curiouser and curiouser – the importance of being Alice

'Curiouser & curiouser!' cried Alice. Lewis Carroll's quirky heroine is fearless, curious and, to use a modern turn of phrase, up for it!

‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice – Lewis Carroll

My old and battered copy of The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll has been with me since I nicked it from my parents’ bookshelf at the age of nine. It’s a huge tome with a red cover and thin, musty pages – all 1,293 of them – and I love it.

As a child, I devoured Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Sat up in bed or with my back against a storage heater during yet another dreary British Winter, I endured the discomfort of focussing on the close print for hours because what was inside was more precious than anything – Alice.

Curiouser & Curiouser – the importance of being Alice
Alice and the White Queen by John Tenniel

She’s not your obvious heroine. She’s distinctly Victorian: proper, prissy at times, disagreeable, even querulous; but also fearless, curious and, to use a contemporary turn of phrase, up for it.

I wanted to be Alice. I wanted to fall down a rabbit hole and consume dubious substances that made me shrink or open out like a telescope. I wanted to talk to flowers and caterpillars and play croquet with a flamingo for a mallet and swim in a caucus race. I wanted to help the White Queen with her hair and learn about portmanteau words from Humpty Dumpty.

Because who wouldn’t? It’s crazy but it’s also delicious and topsy-turvy and unruly and the very opposite of a suburban childhood where nothing ever happens.

Children crave adventure. I yearned for it. Honestly, that was the word I used in my head.

I yearned to climb the Magic Faraway Tree and sail with Jack and Kiki to the Island of Adventure and push with Lucy through coats that became snow-covered branches into Narnia. I yearned to join Kay Harker under the floorboards of Seekings House in The Box of Delights and eavesdrop on the laughter of children from another century with Tolly in The Children of Green Knowe.

Hobbits made me yearn. They were so plucky, so damn brave in the face of seemingly unbeatable odds.

In a different way, the Swallows and Amazons made me yearn because they were out having real adventures with boats and tents and maps and leading lights.

And Alice made me yearn because she could enter other worlds and forge her way through them using just her ingenuity.

Mad Hatter’s Tea Party sound & light installation at Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser at the V&A

My childhood took place in the 1970s so these are my memories but any child will tell you the same thing. They want to transcend the ordinary and become heroes. To quest and succeed, to encounter obstacles and overcome them. But they also want to learn about this world and their place in it and a good way to do this is by navigating other, made-up worlds.

Last year, my sister, Polly, and I went to see the Alice: Curiouser & Curiouser exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I’ve always cited Alice as an inspiration for the main character in the preschool series Polly and I are developing with King Bee Animation. Like Alice, she’s a little girl who explores the world and discovers all manner of animals, plants and other creatures, some real, some made-up, all keen to engage with her: to chat, sing, dance and share adventures.

So the V&A exhibition was a must and I’m so glad we went, not least because it proved to me that Alice is just as relevant today as she was 150 years ago. She has been reinvented and repurposed for each new generation through stories and pictures and films and stage shows and magazine shoots and VR experiences – the list goes on.

From the pinafored, Alice-band-wearing child of Tenniel’s illustrations and Disney’s 1951 film to the surreal Alice of Edward Burra and Max Ernst, the 60s wild child of Jefferson Airplane and Duckie Thot’s fetishised Giant Alice in the 2017 Pirelli calendar, Alice represents something for everyone.

White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane

For me, she’s still very much a Victorian heroine – although I love these other interpretations and what they say about our need for fantasy. But as a children’s writer, I’m drawn to the original Alice with all her quirky, tight-mouthed musings and ability to adapt to the most extraordinary events – to take things in her stride.

And most of all, I am drawn to her curiosity. Because curiosity is the start of adventure.

I hope my main character will appeal to children in the same way that Alice appealed to me. Like Alice, she is quirky but in a can-do, let-it-all-hang-out kind of way. And she likes getting stuck into things. Messy things. Because she’s curious about them.

Have I piqued your interest?

I’ll be sharing more about the series, its stories, characters and songs, in future blog posts but in the meantime, here’s to curiosity…

And to being Alice!

Header photo: Alice: Curiouser & Curiouser at the Victoria & Albert Museum