One Rabbit Hole wasn’t big enough to hold all the readers who gathered to discuss the perennially popular children’s classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll.
In September, more than a dozen readers met at Mid-Continent Public Library’s Smithville Branch, and this month teens and seniors met in the Crossroads at the Rabbit Hole, the site of a proposed children’s book center. Both groups brought new insights to a book that has puzzled and amused readers for 150 years.
Their primary question was voiced by Mary Kay Anderson of Smithville: “Why was this book so popular and how has it remained so popular?”
Barbara Krueger of Smithville admitted to having trouble reading it as an adult. “I wonder if this book is suited to children today. It was hard for me to understand in some places. The characters are odd and the conversations go in unusual directions.”
Nina Norris Payton of Smithville laughed proudly and said, “I’m 92 and I felt like I was reading it for the first time. I don’t remember selecting this book as a child, but by the time I got to the middle I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.”
There’s never been a children’s classic quite like this one, said Nancy Barber of Smithville. “At the time Alice was written, everything for children had to have a moral. Carroll did something so contrary. Alice was popular because it was different, new and fresh.”
Several readers praised the book for compelling children to use their imaginations.
“Carroll gave us a glimpse, but he’s not very detailed in his descriptions,” said Janet Kay of Smithville. “And this book comes from an oral tradition. I can see why it would ramble from one adventure to another. This is how you tell a story to a child. You make stuff up as fast as you can.”
One of the teen readers, Abigail Borne of Kansas City, felt the lack of description “could be seen as a cop-out that Carroll didn’t really want to explain what was going on, who the characters were, or what Alice was doing.”
Erica Whorton of Blue Summit pointed out the power of suggestion: “Sometimes what you do or say before you go to sleep impacts what you dream about. Some of the things Alice was thinking about showed up in her adventures in Wonderland.”
Leslie Talabera of Kansas City agreed: “Alice is in a dream world and things change very quickly. Wonderland is full of orderly chaos. No matter how chaotic the story gets, Alice can find a path or a direction, and she never seems overly concerned about it.”
Kay compared Alice’s experiences to what she could expect as an adult. “Alice was thinking about her own life and how some things weren’t possible. There are lots of things that aren’t possible. There are so many things she can’t understand. She can’t fit through a door; she’s too big, then too small. She meets all these different characters, and her experiences in Wonderland don’t fit together the way she expects them to. But that’s life.”
Lori Schwartz of Kansas City asked about Alice herself: “Is she scared or enchanted and under a spell?”
“When I read it the second time,” answered Linda Starks of Kansas City, “I thought Alice is everything women want to be today. She’s adventurous. She’s curious.”
Howard Wilkens of Kansas City marveled at Alice’s composure. “I felt claustrophobic when Alice would change size. I was amazed she was in control of herself.”
This comment had Norma Tucker of Smithville bring the conversation back to fantasy. “She was a girl with a lot of imagination. And a lot of children have that kind of imagination. Alice’s adult sister sees the world in a more rigid form. Like most children, Alice doesn’t learn from her mistakes. She hasn’t learned not to eat or drink everything in her path because she’s not afraid and she wants to try everything.”
Schwartz concluded, “It’s the fantasy quality that translates this classic into something charming and timeless. It still holds a great deal of interest for kids. And adults.”
Kaite Stover is director of readers’ services for the Kansas City Public Library.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Look in FYI on Nov. 7 for the introduction to the next selection, “Then Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA,” by Roberta Kaplan.
As part of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of “Alice in Wonderland,” singer Angela Hagenbach will perform her original jazz work inspired by the novel: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Plaza Library and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Pavilion at John Knox in Lee’s Summit. Find more information at kclibrary.org/alice or mymcpl.org/alice