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Image of Alice with key by John TennielChildren's Literature

“[Lewis Carroll] came up with was exactly what was required: a natural and attractive child character who rises to the challenges of a weird and wonderful world.” - Jacqueline Banerjee



As Jacqueline Banerjee puts it, “defining children’s literature is unexpectedly tricky”  (“What is Children’s Lit”). Wikipedia divides the topic into several categories: 1) books written by children, 2) books written for children, 3) books chosen for children, and 4) books chosen by children.  And each of these categories include books of multiple sub-genres and forms: picture books, novels, short stories, non-fiction, fairy tales, and poetry, to name a few.  The tone of the literature could be anywhere along a spectrum from extremely didactic to just generally moralistic to pure entertainment.  It all falls under the sweeping label of “children’s” literature and certainly gives critics, librarians, and developmental psychologists a lot to talk about.  Alice is often considered one of the “classics” of children’s literature and is included on almost any list of the most “important” works of the genre.  Yet many critics have spent a lot of time wondering if Alice is children’s literature at all…


Alice as Children’s Literature

Peter Pan imageOn the one hand, it’s hard to argue that Alice isn’t Children’s Literature.  After all, it was composed and written originally for a child, specifically Alice Liddell.  It has numerous illustrations, simple plot and language, and the heroine of the novel is a child. Historically, Alice is often considered the first book of its kind as one meant solely for the entertainment, and not the education of children.  In fact, Elsie Leach calls the “strong reaction against didactism” one of the “most striking” features of the book (91).  Additionally, Roderick McGillis notes that the poem parodies, humorous displacements, and the obsession with size are all subjects which children find extremely interesting and entertaining (260).  Alice is also often credited with seeding the “cult of childhood,” echoed in some later works, such as J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.
Along with this internal evidence, there is also a long history of categorizing Alice as a children’s book and that is how it is usually marketed and shelved.  Even a critical journal of children’s literature, the Lion and the Unicorn, takes its name from the second Alice book.


Alice as Anything But Children’s Literature

However, on the other hand, most adult readers of Alice find it hard to argue that it is Children’s Literature.  Gillian Adams found that her college students who read the novel mostly had a negative experience with it, expecting the text to have some “identifiable meaning” and finding none (9).  Other readers do not even find Alice very childlike.  Christine Roth calls her a “child possessed by an adult consciousness” (23), and Humphrey Carpenter argues that Alice is merely presented in the form of a child to “ask innocent, unsophisticated questions of the persons encountered,” not to represent the experience or thinking of an actual child (67).  These critics and others support the notion that though Alice Liddell may have found enjoyment in the sheer fantasy and silly jokes of her book, Carroll’s true readership were adults like himself who wanted to regain the lost “innocence” of their childhood, making Alice a sort of “Children’s book for Adults.”   This idea is echoed in Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 film, the opening line of which is “Now you will see a film.  For children.  Perhaps!.”


Want to Read More?

Victorian Web, "Children's Literature as a Victorian Genre"
Wikipedia article on Children's Literature


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