Poetry Friday: Something about Alice

h1 November 2nd, 2007 by eisha

Through The Lookingglass

{Note: Please see the post below this one for today’s Robert’s Snow schedule (and a Poetry Friday snowflake if we ever saw one)}
When Jules and I were gestating this little blog idea, we tossed around a few ideas for titles and designs, but we kept coming back to Alice. She’s the perfect symbol for what we’re trying to do here, because we’re adults, reading children’s and adult books; and Lewis Carroll’s books can be enjoyed on different levels by children and adults. Also, Alice is one of those characters that Jules and I (and I know we’re not alone) fell in love with as children, really identified with her – her curiosity, her frustration with pointless rules, her ability to see the pointlessness of a lot of adult behavior – in a way that stayed with us as adults.

And when my husband and I watched Mirrormask the other night, we started talking about something I’m going to call The Alice Motif: that pattern that repeats itself over and over in children’s books, where a girl is transported to another reality, and has to figure out how things work there, forge alliances, and complete some kind of quest before she’s allowed to go back home. I’m pretty sure it began with Alice, and then continues with Dorothy, Meg, Coraline… etc. The male version is different: a boy is transported to another reality and takes on a quest, but usually it’s linked to discovering the secret of his own identity, in a version of the Arthurian/Joseph Campbell/Heroic Epic motif: Frodo, Taran, Will, Harry… and so on. The Narnia Chronicles are a notable hybrid, in that they combine male and female protagonists; and also because of the way they merge the concept of the identity quest with the protagonists being able to go back and forth between the realities. The only “classic” children’s book I’ve been able to think of with a male protagonist following the Alice motif is James and the Giant Peach. Anyone else have a suggestion?

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, Alice is THE icon of children’s literature for a lot of us, and means a lot to me (and Jules) personally for being a gateway drug into literature in general. We pay homage to that with the title and header image here at 7-Imp. So when I saw this posted as a featured poem on the Poetry Foundation’s website, I knew I had my Poetry Friday pick.

“And as in Alice”
by Mary Jo Bang

Alice cannot be in the poem, she says, because
She’s only a metaphor for childhood
And a poem is a metaphor already
So we’d only have a metaphor

Inside a metaphor. Do you see?
They all nod. They see. Except for the girl
With her head in the rabbit hole.

Click here to read the rest.

*Edited to add: The Poetry Friday Roundup for this week is at Mentor Texts, Read Alouds and More, and it is fabulous. Check it out.

13 comments to “Poetry Friday: Something about Alice”

  1. I do love Alice, but she actually isn’t that active in the first book — more wandering about, encountering odd creatures, crying a fair amont, and so forth. I always warn my students (as I read it and so a huge unit with them on the book every year — have you seen my Many Faces of Alice site?) not to expect a conventional plot, but just go with the humor and language. For me, that is a lot of what is so wonderful about Carroll — his wit amazing. Now the second book does have more of a plot — Alice wants to be queen. But the first is much more dreamy and less of her actively trying to get anywhere with great efforts. (As for an Alice-like male protagonist I nominate Milo from The Phantom Tollboth, the book that to me is most like Carroll’s.)

    Mirrormask is wonderful, but a bit too scary for my 4th graders, I think.

  2. Yes, I much prefer Through the Lookingglass to Adventures in Wonderland, and tend to think of it first when I think of Alice. Dreamy is a good word for the first one.

    And now I’m going to show myself up as a big kidlit poseur: I’ve never read The Phantom Tollbooth. I know, I know. But now I have even more incentive to do so. Thanks for the input.

  3. What a great poem. I’ve bookmarked it, so I can come back and “go down the rabbit hole” a few more times.

    I loved the Narnia books because just like the Pevensies, my family had two boys and two girls, and I loved the sibling jealousies and the forgiveness at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I know that doesn’t get much play when discussing these books, but the family aspect is part of what appealed to me.

    I also loved, loved The Phantom Tollbooth, and that reminds me it’s time to go back and re-read it!

  4. Oh how I love today’s pick. I love it so much that I am printing it out. (You girls know I have a thing for Lewis Carroll, right? In addition to having a thing for Frost and Yeats and Dickinson and more.) And now, I just might have a crush on Mary Jo Bang.

  5. I liked that poem, too, Eisha. Good one. I’m going to re-read it a few times.

    Eisha, I also haven’t read The Phantom Tollbooth. Don’t feel so badly. Well, either that, or we should be fired from blogging for being children’s lit poseurs or something. But I think we can remedy it by reading it. Maybe together!

  6. What a great poem! I’d say Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has both a boy and girl version of the Alice story. I agree with Monica that Milo is definitely another version.

    Like Sara, I’m from a two boy-two girl family. But since (I’m the Susan in m family I wasn’t so in love with the family stuff in LWW. Susan doesn’t come off as well as the others.

    I’m still trying to decide, though, if the boy and girl versions you note above are that different. Doesn’t Alice have to do with identity (her own) as well? She spends all of the first book confused as to what and who she is, after all… just mulling it over…

  7. And then there are those books where the boys and the girls go off and have adventures together. Things like Atherton, City of Ember, Wind Singer, First Light, The Name of This Book is Secret, and maybe even Gregor the Overlander. I’m seeing more and more of these stories coming out. I assume it’s a pitch to both boys and girls, but in each of these stories the model is more Alice than Harry, if you get my meaning. In the past boys and girls were in fantasy novels together, but usually in large clumps. E. Nesbit stories or Edgar Eager. The one boy/one girl pairs are going to become the norm soon.

  8. Libby, I know what you mean about Susan in the later Narnia books. I meant more the first one, where they all are Kings and Queens and have talents and reign together.

  9. Jules and Eisha, You are so lucky you’ve not read The Phantom Tollbooth. You know why? Because now you can go read it for the first time! It’ll be interesting to find out what you think of it as grownup readers. The first few times I read it, I didn’t get all of the puns, but I enjoyed the story anyway.

  10. Eisha,

    Wow! This is one fine poetry Friday post. I love Bang’s poem. I really do like poems that are inspired by fairy tales, other pieces of literature, and works of art. I think they provide readers with an almost tangible reference in their minds–a starting point of understanding.

  11. Thanks for all the comments and suggestions, guys.

    Here’s my thing about His Dark Materials: yeah, it’s got a male and female protagonist who both go through an Alice motif, but there’s a bit of the Arthur/Harry thing too, I think – isn’t there a bit of a predestination thing going on? It’s been a couple of years since the last time I read them, so maybe I’m off.

    Fuse, I’m ashamed to say that of your list City of Ember and Gregor the Overlander are the only ones I’ve read. I’d agree with you on Ember – it’s more along the Alice model. But – now I only read the first Gregor book, but the whole prophecy aspect makes me think it might fit better with Harry than Alice.

  12. The Phantom Tollbooth is one of those great books to read aloud. The language is so fun, worth taking a little time with and hearing in the air. I read it as an adult, though, and I wonder what I would have made of it as a kid.

  13. Great post!

    What about Tom’s Midnight Garden? That’s quite Alice-like in a way, almost more like Wonderland because it’s so dreamy and he doesn’t really have a mission or a quest, he’s more of a witness.

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