LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Malnutrition and Imaginary Meals in Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan

Upon looking for sources for my paper, I stumbled upon an article that talked about how hunger and malnutrition are represented in Alice in Wonderland, as a commentary on the famines of the Victorian era. According to the article, Lewis Carroll included the tiny pieces of food, about the place, to express that Alice is essentially scrounging for her meals. She is lucky to stumble upon something, but is often left looking about for more food to return her to normal. In the Victorian era, there were enormous food shortages, causing the price of food to be raised to an intolerable level. As a result, meals became hard to come by. Considering Lewis Carroll saw this occurring, and experienced it himself, he felt the need to use it as a theme in Alice in Wonderland, and seek a solution for it.
At one point, in the novel, Alice meets the caterpillar, smoking atop a giant mushroom. When leaving, he tells her that one side will make her small, and one side will make her big. Alice then attempts to regain her original size, and upon doing so, realizes the value of the mushroom. From then on, Alice stores the mushroom pieces in her apron, thinking that she can use them as needed. This mushroom is thus Carroll’s solution for Victorian society–to find food in nature.

In Peter and Wendy, the lost boys complain about having to occasionally make believe their dinners. I personally found this to be one of the most pitiable situations in the book, and I was curious as to why J. M. Barrie might have written such scenes. After reading about the high price of food in the Victorian era, I wondered if perhaps Barrie was also making a commentary about the Edwardian era, through Peter and Wendy, by expressing that, due the food shortages, little boys and girls sometimes had to imagine they had meals. The Edwardian era, however, was described as a golden age between the Victorian era and World War I, hence I am led to believe that the food shortages improved. What I did read was about a Poor Law that was implemented, which gave relief funds to unemployed women, but not to unemployed able-bodied males. As a result, if one was married to an unemployed male, one was cut off from funds, as well. Upon reading this, I wondered about the financial situation of the Davies boys, and if the imaginary meals were an idea thought up by Barrie to quell their growling stomachs, rather than that of society as a whole. Children often play make believe, when it comes to tea parties, but in Peter and Wendy there is an obvious expression that these boys are hungry, despite having nothing,

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Paper Thoughts: Arthur Rackham and Children’s Book Illustration

rackham1For my final paper I am focusing, unsurprisingly, on children’s book illustration. More specifically, I am planning to write about Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), a prolific early-twentieth century British illustrator. While Rackham illustrated a vast number of books, I intend to focus on his illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and examine how these illustrations are representative of major themes in children’s book illustration during the Golden Age. (I realize that this is still somewhat vague, most of my research so far has been limited to biographical information while I wait for a couple of books on the history of children’s book illustration to arrive.)

Rackham was commissioned to illustrate Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in 1905, completing fifty full-page color illustrations for the text. His illustrations were praised by both Barrie and critics, and the book was the most popular gift-book for Christmas in 1906. Rackham’s Alice in Wonderland, published in time for Christmas in 1907 after the book’s original copyright expired, was one of the first re-illustrated versions to be released since the publication of the original with John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations. Interestingly, several other re-illustrated versions were released at the same time, but Rackham’s was the only to endure.

rackham5One specific area that interests me is the production and reception of deluxe limited editions of illustrated books during this period. Many of Rackham’s books were published in these sorts of editions and were extremely popular as Christmas gifts, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph. However, I am finding in my research that such lavish editions, while popular, also attracted criticism when it came to children’s books. For example, the illustrations for Peter Pan were printed, as was customary, on thick paper and protected by tissue fly-leaves (some of the books that we looked at on our visit to the Baldwin were printed in this manner). Critics attacked this practice, however, claiming that such fine books were more suited for “the drawing-room rather than the nursery” (Hudson 66). They argue that in creating such luxurious editions, the books were turned into art objects more easily admired by adults than enjoyed and used by children. I plan to try and locate the full original responses by critics that are cited in the books I have read, and I hope to further explore this debate and its implications for Rackham’s work and Golden Age children’s illustration.

A gallery of Rackham’s Peter Pan illustrations can be found here.
A Rackham edition of Alice in Wonderland can be viewed here.

Hamilton, James. Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration. London: Pavilion, 1990.
Hudson, Derek. Arthur Rackham: His Life and Work. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960.

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The Gateway as a Trope

In much of Children’s fiction, the Child is transported to a fantastic land by means of a gateway of some kind.  C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” possesses one of the most literal and iconic of these gateways: the wardrobe.  narnia-wardrobe_1112147726

The rest of the series also possesses such portals or gateways:  a magic ring in “The Magician’s Nephew,” and a portrait in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”   C.S. Lewis was not the first to use this mechanism, though.

In L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” the twister transports Dorothy from Kansas to Munchkinland.



Peter Pan and Wendy fly to the second star to the right.  Alice gets to Wonderland through means of the rabbit hole, and even in “The Water Babies,” Tom is transported when he falls in the river.

In modern times, the gateway has become a ubiquitous means of transporting the protagonist into a fantastic world, and has even departed the realm of Children’s Literature.  A machine turns a paraplegic into a nine foot tall blue man with a hair tail.  A girl travels through a tree in the middle of a labyrinth in Spain.  An entire team travels through an alien portal to various other worlds.  A man is transported by a church bell to 1920’s Paris.  Neo takes the red pill.

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Why has the portal to another world become so ubiquitous?  Perhaps it is because it is a simple way to show a distinct change between the real world and the fantastic one.  But perhaps it is because the  portal allows for the suspension of disbelief–once you go through the portal, anything can happen.


The Shifting World of Through the Looking Glass

What is life but a dream?

Much like its predecessor, Through the Looking Glass showcases Lewis Carroll’s love for seemingly nonsensical characters, dialogue exchanges, and world. However, it can be argued that the world showcased in the sequel surpasses the original world of Wonderland in its  non-linearity and bizarre occurrences. One of the biggest differences between Wonderland and the world within the looking glass is the completely random shifts in settings that pop up in the sequel. Carroll purposely sets up a setting and a set of characters only to change them completely without notice. The motif can be in interpreted several ways, but I believe Carroll included this odd device to reinforce the idea that real life can be as nonsensical and random as the looking glass world.

A peek into the bizarre carriage scene.

The first major example of this motif occurs in chapter 3 when Alice inexplicably goes from running down a hill to being thrust inside a carriage and being badgered for not having a ticket. She undergoes bullying from the carriage guard  and its passengers, has her thoughts read by everyone on the carriage, and is scrutinized under microscopes. I think Carroll potentially included this encounter to showcase the way situations sometimes deprives people completely of their preparedness. The complete tonal shift reinforces this idea, with the tone first being curious and whimsical to anxious and troubled. The prevalent sense of helplessness Alice experiences in the carriage, particularly the insults aimed at her from the characters, also adds to this stark tonal shift. Although seemingly random, I think Carroll possessed a method to his madness through complete scene changes.

Alice and her kitten, the ear to her muse.

Although many of the scene changes in the novel represent a shift from tranquility (at least what can be considered tranquil in the world) to chaos, the final setting change at the end represents a stark departure from this trend. When Alice becomes queen, a nonsensical and disastrous dinner is held in her honor. At the climax of this dinner, Alice awakens and learns the entire ordeal was a dream. I think this shift at the end directly links to the poem that ends the story, which’s final line states “Life, what is it but a dream?”  (line 21). This particular shift gives the reader an interesting insight into Carroll’s opinion on life in a very melancholy yet philosophical line. When Alice awakens, she attributes figures in her life (such as her cats) to to characters in her dream and recounts the dream to one of her kittens. Her desire to make sense of the dream and remember all the details could indicate a desire to return to the looking glass world. This relates to the sadly nostalgic tone of Carroll’s poem, which sounds like he experienced life as a dream and perhaps mournfully misses it. This could sum up a huge theme of the book, which emphasizes attaining happiness no matter the circumstances, even if it’s achieved through a dream.

Carroll’s employment of drastic scene changes represents both the positives and negatives of the randomness of life. Although I may not agree with his feelings regarding happiness and its pursuit, I find his weaving of nonsense with philosophical themes quite admirable as a writer.

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Nothing Gold Can Stay


  Both Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and Looking Glass Land are enchanting, nonsensical places.  Yet throughout the Alice stories, Carroll hints at the fleeting, temporary nature of their existence.  Nothing in these fantasy worlds is ever permanent.  The rules of logic at play are always changing.  At one moment, it makes perfect sense to knock on a door to a house in order to be let in by the frog footman; in the next, knocking on the door is a ridiculous notion which will get you nowhere at all.  And once one travels through the looking glass, things morph and change at the drop of a hat with no attempt made at an explanation, not even an illogical one.  These occurrences are frustrating to Alice, who is used to the rigid, dependable order of the real world, but she does come to appreciate these lands for what they are.  By the end of her first adventure, she has developed a bit of a soft spot for Wonderland. In the final chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Alice got up and ran off, thinking while she ran, as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been” (Carroll 142).  In her childlike state of mind, Alice concludes that these dreamlands are really quite wonderful places after all.
As nice as Alice finds these dreamlands to be, Carroll ends each of his stories in the same way- Alice awakens from her dream.  She is not allowed to stay in Wonderland or beyond the looking glass forever; she is forced to return to her day-to-day life.  Carroll too could not remain a permanent inhabitant of Wonderland, nor could the real Alice Liddell.  In the poems which begin and end each tale, readers are exposed to this melancholy truth.
The poem which prefaces Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tells the tale of origin of the story which is about to unfold.  Carroll sets his tale “All in the golden afternoon,” which is a fleeting time.  A golden afternoon calls to mind something lovely and pleasant, bordering on perfection.  But no afternoon lasts forever; each one ends with the setting of the sun and the closing of the day.  Within this brief window of time “grew the tale of Wonderland.”  Carroll is aware of the fact that Wonderland is itself allowed a brief window and so closes the poem by pleading “Alice! A childish story take, / And, with a gentle hand, / Lay it where childhood’s dreams are twined / In Memory’s mystic band.”  It is only through the child taking hold of the story and gifting it a place of honor within their memory that it can continue on its golden state.  Within memory, the world cannot touch it and make it less than it was.
In the opening poem of Through the Looking Glass, Carroll tells of “A tale begun in other days, / When summers suns were glowing / … Whose echoes live in memory yet. / Through envious years would say ‘forget.’”  So he feels that the precious tale of Wonderland has been preserved, although “envious years” are urging a maturing child to leave it behind- “Without, the frost, the blinding snow, / The storm-wind’s moody madness- / Within, the firelight’s ruddy glow / And childhood’s nest of gladness.”  The world outside of memory is bombarding the inner child to snuff “the firelight’s ruddy glow.”  But Carroll does not imply that the child surrenders to the attack.  In the poem which closes Through the Looking Glass, he admits that “Long has paled that sunny sky: / Echoes fade and memories die; / Autumn frosts have slain July” but insinuates that the inhabitants of Wonderland have not ceased to exist, for “In a Wonderland they lie, / Dreaming as the days go by, / Dreaming as the summers die / … Ever drifting down the stream- / Lingering in the golden gleam.” Something or someone is still lingering in the soft light of that golden afternoon.  Be that Alice, Carroll, or the reader, it does not matter much.  What matters is only that someone has managed to hold onto that golden quality which slips away so easily.
Many years after the publication of the Alice stories, Robert Frost published a poem, entitled “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

This poem is an embodiment of the essence of the golden afternoon when Wonderland was created.  It was wonderful, but inevitably could not last.  The golden afternoon subsided to evening, just as “dawn goes down to day.”  Presumably, Alice herself was subject to this cycle as well.  She grew up and had to move on or awaken from the nonsensical fantasy lands of Carroll’s invention.  Carroll is not in denial of the demands of reality, but still proposes a solution: to hold onto anything golden, one must tuck it safely away within the protective walls of nostalgic memory.

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Carroll Forever Young

What interested me most about the author Lewis Carroll was this ability to hold onto his own childhood in order to write these tales. I think part of the reason Alice was such a hit with children was because he was a child himself, and therefore knew just how much to engage the child and how much to make him or her think. In a way the “cult” of childhood entrapped Carroll, making him a permanent resident throughout his later years. This mindset of youth allowed him to think both logically and nonsensically, because children have the ability to process both even if they cannot fully understand why yet.


However, Carroll’s imprisonment in the “cult” of childhood caused controversy amongst adults whom attempted to understand the author more clearly. I myself found questionable the fact that his friendships with young girls would end once they reached the age of fourteen. At first I considered that it was because of his child-like mentality, and once they reached a certain age he stopped being able to relate to them. They would sort of out grow him while he remained a child in his mind. However, reading about how his relationships with young girls affected his writing had me question this theory.


This is where the “Victorian Child Cult” influences the “Carroll Myth.” The Victorians were under the impression that child nudity was an expression of innocence. Back in Carroll’s time, the fact that he possessed pictures of nude children was not as heavily questioned as it is in more modern times and still is today. It might be a product of change and our generation, but we now see Carroll more so as a questionable man than during his life or even shortly after his passing. Time has caused us to call into question the essence of the Child Cult and caused us to make Lewis out to be the bad guy. The truth is, we may never know the true nature of his relationship’s with young girls, but I do strongly believe that time and modern circumstances have caused us to question to innocence of those relationships more and more.

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Alice and Pop Culture


I have always personally wondered why the appeal of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was so persistent. I didn’t really enjoy Alice until I was an adult literature student and could follow the cleverness of the nonsense. Though most people in my generation are fans of the Disney movie rather than the original text (or at least read the book because they saw the movie first), enough of the elements are the same for the question to stand.

I asked the class why they thought Alice had such a wide appeal for teenagers, and the answers were very insightful. Some mentioned identifying with Alice’s changing body and her uncertain sense of self, while some cited the nonsensical behavior of the adult characters.

The most common line I see quoted from Alice is “We’re all mad here.” Kids on the internet delight in posting pictures of themselves exhaling smoke and quoting this line, or getting it as a tattoo. The line has apparently taken on meaning beyond the Cheshire Cat’s comment. It reminds me, frankly, of kids in middle and high school referring to themselves as ‘crazy’ or ‘random.’ This special-snowflake uniqeness certainly provides one explanation for the popularity of the quote: it could be a reference to living a wild and crazy life. A different group of teens might latch on to this line because they are beginning to see that life does not play out logically or fairly, and madness seems the only explanation. Furthermore, our generation is frequently diagnosed with mental illnesses: ADD, defiance disorders, and depression. In this way, acting outside of the norm is often considered literally crazy.


I actually wrote that line before I searched for pictures. No kidding.

I actually wrote the line about the smoke before I searched for pictures. No kidding.

However, we ran out of time before I could ask my other question: why has the novel been appropriated by drug culture?  Drug-friendly interpretations of Alice equate the nonsense of Wonderland with a hallucination. The famous song “White Rabbit” was released in 1967 by Jefferson Airplane, and draws inspiration from both Alice books, using mentions of the size-altering food and drink to refer to hallucinogenic drugs. From the band’s website: “Grace Slick [the songwriter] has always said that White Rabbit was intended as a slap toward parents who read their children stories such as Alice in Wonderland (in which Alice uses several drug-like substances in order to change herself) and then wondered why their children grew up to do drugs.” The line “Go Ask Alice” from the song was then used to title Beatrice Sparks’ awful and fictional ‘diary of a real teen drug user’.

I'm pretty sure the Metallica shirt is anachronistic.

I’m pretty sure the Metallica shirt is anachronistic.

Counter-culture is quick to latch on to anything that seems new and different, but the fascination with the seemingly deviant parts of Carroll’s work is misguided. Drug interpretations and other appropriations miss the non-sense aspect of Carroll’s creation: Wonderland isn’t chaos; it is the opposite of logic. Alice was told purely to entertain the Liddell sisters and is only a playful, though clever, nonsense story. Its enduring appeal is probably due to Carroll’s desire only to entertain, and never to instruct. The Cheshire Cat’s madness was not a mention of his rejection of his parent’s generation, nor was it a commentary on his carefree life, nor was it madness in the sense of mental illness — the Cheshire Cat and all the rest of the inhabitants of Wonderland are ‘mad’ because they act and speak nonsense. The nonsense that illuminates the novel is meant to entertain, not to be taken literally; as soon as we take the story out of context and out of nonsense it loses its true content.  And after all, the caterpillar is only smoking tobacco in that hookah.

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Logic and Alice

Carroll delights in taking logic and turning it on his head.  In Chapter V, Carroll proves that little girls are serpents in the scene with the Pigeon.  Alice says she is a little girl, but the Pigeon says that she can’t be a little girl “with such a neck as that!”  The pigeon says that Alice must be a serpent.  “I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you’ve never tasted an egg!”  Alice admits that she has tasted eggs, but defends herself by saying that “little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do” (48).  The pigeon uses this as grounds to say that little girls are a kind of serpent.

Such uses of logic (serpents eat eggs, little girls eat eggs, therefore little girls must be serpents) abound in Alice in Wonderland.  Carroll uses syllogisms to reach ridiculous conclusions.  In doing this, he treats children like they are actually logical, thinking people, rather than wild things, like Rousseau’s ideal of the “perfect child.”  While Rousseau believes that children would be empty, wild beasts until they are educated at twelve, Carroll believes that children will develop their own mental faculties, even without guidance from adults.  Carroll’s use of logic to reach odd conclusions forces children to, in thinking for themselves, realize why the claims are false, even though they seem to be logically sound.

Carroll trusted that children could and would understand the difference between reality and fiction, nonsensical or otherwise.  He speaks to children as though they are capable of adult thought, because he believes that they are.  He does not speak to them as though they are less intelligent, or like they are lesser beings in need of moral and ethical instruction.  It is this quality that makes Alice in Wonderland a classic work of children’s literature–the belief that children are not some mythical being that is somehow different from a regular person.  Carroll writes as though children are adults and are capable of adult thought, and that makes his work not only timeless, but ageless as well.


Phoebe in Wonderland

Phoebe in Wonderland is a movie from 2008 about a young girl who is in love with Alice in Wonderland. Her mother, a writer, is working on a dissertation on the novel, and their house is a magical place, where Phoebe and her sister are entertained with imaginative projects. In school, Phoebe has trouble adjusting to class and her peers, because she has a bad habit of mimicking the teacher, speaking out of turn, and occasionally spitting at her classmates when they distress her. In one of the first scenes of the movie, Phoebe sits in class after class as they go over the classroom rules. It is quite obvious that she is tired of following the prescript set before her.

Suddenly, the new drama teacher shows up, and quotes Alice in Wonderland, advertising the school play. Due to Phoebe’s love for Alice’s world, she manages to find the courage to sign up for auditions. The rest of the film focuses on the preparation for the play, where Phoebe plays the part of Alice, and her anxieties about making the audition and ‘getting fired’ after being cast as the main part.

It is quite clear, early on, that something is not quite right with Phoebe. In order to quell her anxiety, she washes her hands to the point of them becoming raw, has to jump a certain number of steps on the stairs, over and over, and will perform a difficult hopping and clapping game that involves not stepping on cracks. Her parents quickly become concerned, and her behaviors seem to worsen, until her misbehavior in the classroom gets her kicked out of the play. In the end, it becomes clear that Phoebe suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, a psychological disorder where she cannot control her compulsion to break rules, nor can she control her ritualistic actions despite the distress they cause her.

Through out the film, there are various allusions to the world on Wonderland. Phoebe often imagines the characters appearing before her, talking to her. In this manner, she attempts to derive advice from them about her life problems. The scenes of the play include direct quotes from the book, and costumes that seem fitting for the world of Wonderland. Overall, the message that is pushed, in regards to Alice in Wonderland, is the idea that it is an imaginary world with a different set of rules. It is a place where everything is essentially upside down. In this sense, the world of Alice in Wonderland seems ideal to Phoebe, who would like to be free from the omnipresent rules about what one should and should not do. She dreams of following Alice to a place where she can be free. As a result, the theatre serves as a release for her, where she can become Alice, and do as she pleases. While this movie is not a direct adaptation of the book Alice in Wonderland, it contains accurate allusions to the play, and is a heartwarming film about a unique young girl discovering a place where she feels secure in a world that seems to be against her.

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Wonderland: Not Why, but How?

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tells the tale of a young girl seemingly on the routine path to being taught via the conventional society of the time to transform into an elegant and proper young women.  Although this seems to be a bit like many of the other fairy tales and children’s literature of the time, the protagonist quickly finds herself in Wonderland, where all convention and societal norms are displaced by pure nonsense.  To some, an appropriate question concerning the events that happen thereafter would be, “How?”  How did Wonderland come to be?  How did Alice end up there?  How did the creatures of Wonderland become this seemingly senseless society as governed by our traditional views of what society should be?  However, I believe a better question that we could be asking ourselves as readers to the author is, “Why?”

Why was Wonderland created? I believe that Wonderland in this story represents childhood.  It allows for the prolonging of that sense of purity exhibited by young children before they grow up.  Several scholars such as Rousseau believed that children had an innate sense of goodness that remained untouched until the corrupt society around them shaped them into the “civilized” citizens that they wanted them to become.  In a traditional society, questions have answers.  Animals do not talk.  Court hearings are conducted in a dignified manner.  Croquet is not played with flamingos and hedgehogs.  However, Wonderland represents the beauty of all that is not a traditional society.  It represents a colorful and unlimited imagination, which all children have the ability to possess.

A prime example comes when the Hatter presents Alice with his infamous riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”  Although Lewis Carroll was eventually convinced to provide an answer to his displeased audience, the protagonist originally does not know the answer to the riddle, and when she implores as to what it is, we as readers find that the Hatter is unable to provide one.  This provides an opportunity to delve into one’s own imagination to conjure up the various possibilities concerning the similarities between writing desks and ravens.  A societal staple such as a school system is not there to provide an explanation.  Whereas conventional societies teach children their multiplication tables and scientific facts based on research and the common answers, “Because that’s the way it is” or “Because I told you so,” Wonderland serves the purpose of allowing a child to figure out what they would like the answer to be.  Perhaps two multiplied by two does not have to equal four in Wonderland because there are no educational staples to teach its inhabitants that it is so.


Artist’s depiction of Alice at the tea party with the Hatter and the March Hare

Wonderland is an escape.  It takes us back to a childhood where we were all on journeys of discovery through the daily occurrences of our lives.  Our imaginations allowed the possibilities of talking caterpillars and mice.  Why would playing cards paint white roses red for the simple pleasure of a Queen?  Well, a child may ask, “Why not?”  This story can take an adult reader back to a time when all things were possible in our minds.  Opening this book and exploring the nonsense that is its contents could equate to an adult reader metaphorically falling down a rabbit hole into their own Wonderland—a place where both nonsense and nostalgia meet.


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