Adventures with Alice

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
(Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Pig and Pepper”)

The start of classes has me thinking about some favourite books. This term, I’m teaching a class in British fantasy. We’re starting the course with George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, but I’m also thinking about Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Beggar Maid is the most infamous of the photographs Lewis Carroll took of Alice Liddell. The Liddell children, daughters to Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church at Oxford University, accompanied Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and Robinson Duckworth on a day of boating in July 1862.
Lewis amused his companions by telling them the story of Alice’s Adventures Underground. You can read Lewis’s account of the day in his diary entry of 4 July 1862. Carroll had known the Liddell children since 1856. While critics have had cause to question the nature of Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell in the last one hundred-fifty years, no one can deny the impact of the fictional Alice and her adventures on popular culture.
I’ve always had something of a problem with Alice. I never particularly liked the book, but I didn’t know why. So, I started teaching it. I found plenty to discuss with students about Alice—the way she navigates Wonderland, the impossible and chaotic geography of the place, and the mad creatures she meets along the way.
Many critics identify Alice’s Adventures as marking the beginning of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. One of the best introductions to this period of children’s books is, still, I think, Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Carpenter brings the same slightly quirky, yet probing spirit to his examination of this period as he does to his biography of J. R. R. Tolkien and his book about Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and the Inklings.
Whatever else Alice does when she appears in 1865, she changes the way we read and understand kid’s books. I resist calling Alice’s Adventures a fantasy—the book is many things, but I wouldn’t call it that. It’s absurd, it’s chaotic, it’s nonsensical, and the book is coloured by desire, appetite, and bizarre anxieties. Like Carroll himself and his relationship with Alice Liddell, the book is a puzzle.
IN the summer of 2018, my eldest daughter and I had the chance to visit the Alice in Wonderland Exhibit in Melbourne. The exhibit included photographs, puppets, costumes, film sets, and almost every way in which Alice has entered the popular imagination in the last hundred years. It was astounding, strange, disconcerting, and a little overwhelming. More than anything else, the exhibit reinforced for me the puzzle that is Alice and her adventures down the rabbit-hole.

So Long to Summer

The summer is coming to an end, and there are always things in my world to tell me fall is coming. The school year is now a week away, and everyone is gearing up. September and the beginning of the year has dictated my life for more than thirty years, and here it comes again.
I try to use these points in the year to reflect and think about where I’ve been and where I’m going next. I use the summer to read books I don’t normally read during the term, although this summer I’ve been rereading more than usual.
I started the summer with the Percy Jackson books—always a fun read—and I spent part of July rereading the Lockwood and Co. series. I returned to Pullman’s His Dark Materials, but did that because I’m teaching The Golden Compass this fall, and I want to move onto Pullman’s next series, The Book of Dust. I read M. K. Humes’s The Merlin Prophecy series, and I returned to a favourite author, Bernard Cornwell, to read The War of the Wolf, the eleventh book in The Last Kingdom series.
Some people never reread books, but I do it all the time. The summer can often be hard for me—I tend to get depressed. It’s as though I have seasonal affective disorder in reverse. This has to do with the accident that took my sight, which happened in the middle of August in 1974. This is part of the reason why I’ve taken to writing memoir. Writing about that event in my life has helped me to, in part, reframe it—to rewrite the story of what happened. Earlier this year, “Running Blind” appeared in The Real Story, and “Fractured” should appear this fall. Both of these pieces attempt to talk about the adjustment I had to make as an eleven-year-old who lost his sight. I have two other pieces in circulation, “My Cowboy Cousin” and “Standing by My Cousin’s Grave, May, 2016.” Both these pieces talk about the death of my cousin Graham in the same accident that took my sight.
My other big challenge this summer was writing two academic articles, one on Anne of Green Gables and the other on C. S. Lewis. Academic writing has always been far more difficult for me than any other kind of writing. It’s just hard. I’ve also had something of a block for nearly three years. Faced with these commitments, I had to find a different way to write academically. I took the advice of my therapist. She always tells me that if things become overwhelming, then break them down into smaller and smaller pieces. If, for example, your anxiety is so crippling that it prevents you from getting through your day, then take one piece at a time—have a shower and get ready to leave the house, then celebrate the accomplishment. By the way, this method has been invaluable to me over the years.
That’s what I did. I took the stuff I had written about Anne, and I broke it down into short sections. Some were only two or three-hundred words. I relied on my hard-won sense of discipline to get me started, and I worked on these various bits until I could start assembling them into a larger whole. It worked. I ended up with an eight-thousand-word chapter, which I submitted in August.
I’ve spent much of my life feeling badly about those things I couldn’t manage and those things I couldn’t complete. My sense of guilt as a result has helped prevent me from doing other things I’ve wanted to try. I’m learning, slowly, that the energy required to feel badly, regretful, or guilty is energy that could be spent in learning something new or to undo old habits. Think of it as rewriting the story. You don’t want the story to end with the hero wandering forever in the wilderness—what sort of ending is that? Better to have her find her way back home, or, better yet, find a new home. Either way, such endings allow you to close off those old stories and begin anew.

Summer Reading: The Definitive YA List

Summer is a time for reading—not to mention rereading. I’ve met readers who don’t reread books—they are of a different species than me. I love rereading my favourites.
In July I revisited the Lockwood and Co. series by Jonathan Stroud. These books—five in total—feature Lucy Carlyle, an agent with Lockwood and Co, who narrates her adventures in an alternative London, where the nightly appearance of ghosts and dangerous visitors has become the “Problem.” Only children and teens can see ghosts, so they are the ones to battle the Problem.
Jonathan Stroud has more skill as a writer than many current young adult writers, including such big names as J. K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, and Sarah J. Maas. His prose is careful, Well-paced, and lively. The Lockwood books also scared the daylights out of me the first time I read them—and I don’t like reading scary books. I’ve read the series now four times.
If you are looking for a young adult read this summer, Book Riot has what seems the definitive list for summer, 2019. Check it out; you are bound to find something you will fall in love with. And if you are one of those who loves to revisit old friends, then enjoy your favourites, but check out the list, anyway. Happy reading!

Anne, Continued

When I posted the link to Eastern Iowa Review’s call for Anne submissions last week, I thought that would be it. Apparently not. August is going to contain more Anne than I expected.
Eastern Iowa Review is already publishing pieces on Anne. Here are two samples:
Lily MacKenzie’s short story, “The Dollhouse,”
And
Marilyn Kriete’s essay, “Anne Shirley Revisited.”
These are two examples of ways to write about Anne. However, and as always, I would encourage #AnneFans to explore their love for this character in as many ways as possible: how you met her, why you love her. I’m one of those people who discovered Anne as an adult, which you can read more about here.
As a reader and a teacher, I never grow tired of hearing stories from students who encounter particular books or characters for the first time. Especially as a young reader, such encounters can be overwhelming. It’s like discovering a whole world just outside your window you didn’t know was there. C. S. Lewis understood this experience more than most:
“This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!” thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. “I wonder is that more moth-balls?” she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hands. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold, “This is very queer,” she said, and went on a step or two further.
Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. “Why, it is just like branches of trees!” exclaimed Lucy. And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
(Lewis, C. S. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. “Lucy Looks into a Wardrobe.”)
Lucy’s first encounter with Narnia captures for me the experience of discovering a new character or book for the first time. And there have been many over the years: Anne, Bilbo, Ged, Meg Murray, Will Stanton, Marlo, Ishmael, Emma Woodhouse, Pip, and the Wart, all characters who have enriched my life more than I can measure.

A Call for Anne Submissions

Gilbert reached across the aisle, picked up the end of Anne’s long red braid, held it out at arm’s length and said in a piercing whisper:
“Carrots! Carrots!”
Then Anne looked at him with a vengeance! She did more than look. She sprang to her feet, her bright fancies fallen into cureless ruin. She flashed one indignant glance at Gilbert from eyes whose angry sparkle was swiftly quenched in equally angry tears.
“You mean, hateful boy!” she exclaimed passionately. “How dare you!”
And then thwack! Anne had brought her slate down on Gilbert’s head and cracked it slate not head clear across.
Avonlea school always enjoyed a scene. This was an especially enjoyable one. Everybody said “Oh” in horrified delight. Diana gasped. Ruby Gillis, who was inclined to be hysterical, began to Cry.
(Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. Chapter XV, “A Tempest in the School Teapot.”)

This iconic scene in which Anne Shirley smashes her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head is burned into the minds of Anne fans everywhere. I love Anne, and I’m attached to the books—just not in quite the same way as I’m attached to other books or other authors.
However, I was interested and delighted to see a call for submissions to the summer edition of Eastern Iowa Review: All Things Anne.
For Anne fans everywhere, this is your chance to indulge in fan fiction, poetry, nonfiction, or anything else related to Anne. You will have to visit the site for more details, but you have until September 30 to submit.
I’ve never written fan fiction, but I’ve thought about it. If I were to write about Anne, I might do something like Anne and robots, or Anne of Green Gables on Mars. But I probably won’t—maybe—I don’t know.
I’ve visited Prince Edward Island many times—it’s a lovely, picturesque place, full of friendly, interesting people. And I can’t overstate the friendliness of PEI. People there go far out of their way to help me when I visit. I once had a guy abandon his lunch and car—keys in the ignition and music playing—to walk me more than a block to the bank. He even came inside to make sure I found the ATM.
Last time I visited, one of the hotel staff walked me several blocks to the place where I caught the Hippo, an amphibious vehicle that tours downtown Charlottetown and the Charlottetown harbour. The only other time I encountered someone from a hotel who was that helpful was in Portland, Oregon, another fabulous place to visit.
So if I were to write about Anne, I might write about how the island itself has become a place of pilgrimage for Anne fans, of how you can visit those places Lucy Maud lived as a child and woman before her marriage that took her away to Ontario; or of how the people of the island have something of a love/hate relationship with Anne Shirley, as she has become inextricably part of the island economy. Regardless of what I do or don’t do, such a call is an excuse to revisit the books once again and think about Anne Shirley and the island with the generous heart.

Challenged Books of the 1990s

Recently, I came across the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of the 1990s. The list is worth perusing, even if you’re only scanning for the kids’ books.
Here’s a few challenged books I find noteworthy, all of which I’ve read and many of which I’ve taught:
• Katherine Paterson—one of my favourite young adult authors—has two spots: Bridge to Terabithia at #8, and The Great Gilly Hopkins at #20.
• Lois Lowry’s the Giver—not a great surprise—sits at #11.
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George appears at #32—this one I find particularly mystifying.
Harry Potter—no real surprise—sits at #48.
Judy Blume has four spots on the list and Mark Twain has two, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.
And in case you don’t look through the entire list, these children’s and young adult books share a spot on the same list with books such as Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women’s Fantasies, by Nancy Friday, and The Dead Zone, by Stephen King. This isn’t a comment on either Friday or King—just some additional perspective.
The point, people challenge books for many reasons, many of which are petty, unthinking, homophobic, or racist. If anything, a list of challenge books will provide you with some interesting summer reading.