Growing up, my mom was super strict. She had no qualms with whipping out the slipper or the broom handle when her flaming stare wasn’t enough. Being the youngest of 3 boys, a sister, and a brister (that’d be my brother who’s now my sister), I was under constant supervision. I wasn’t allowed to sleep over anywhere until I was 18 and even then it was at my cousin’s place. The running joke with my friends was “don’t bother asking Kerry. She can’t come.” The first time I brought a boyfriend home (not to be confused with my first boyfriend who I didn’t admit to having), my brothers maddogged the hell outta the poor guy. I hated the overprotection but whatcha gonna do? She was a vigilant momma bear and my family felt an overwhelming need to protect me.
The only place I was allowed to go by myself was the library across the street, the only semblance of freedom my pubescent self had. I’d spend hours perusing its shelves and sitting on bean bag chairs by the floor to ceiling windows, oblivious to the city outside its quiet. I remember reading a Judy Blume book and seeing the word “fuck” written for the first time. I went back to the sentence over and over to make sure my eyes weren’t messing with me. It was fucking cool! I felt like such a badass! I had this secret world no one knew about because it was just me and the book, me and the characters, me and Judy Blume. It was us against the establishment. The establishment being, of course, my hovering mother who preferred crossword puzzles over books so I knew she’d never care to be a part of it. But now, though I’ve no doubt become a better reader, as a nearly 30 year old English major, my enchantment with reading has dissipated, replaced with a sense of ethical necessity.
A week ago, during a long overdue nature walk, I came across a rabbit. I’ve never tried chasing a rabbit in my life but for whatever reason I felt like this rabbit was asking to be touched. Of course it was futile, the metaphor exists for a reason, but for a moment I had that childlike wildlife confidence of possiblity. And it got me thinking about Alice in Wonderland. I was already an adult when I watched the movie so its magic was lost on me but I had to read it for a children’s lit class and through that I truly got to appreciate its beauty. Children’s lit is a magnificent artform that, by nature, has to cater to more than one audience and I have reverence for that which cunningly teaches while entertaining a spectrum of demographics. Literature, in general, has a curious property of teaching and entertaining, all while allowing the reader to fully immerse themself in a foreign state of existence because when a person reads, a character’s every thought is the reader’s own as well. Forget about walking in another man’s shoes: a reader shares another man’s mind.
For children especially, books are a medium through which to perceive concepts that they’ve yet to experience. In their fourteen or less years of life, experiences are what children yearn for. Confined to the classroom or the home where they live, children see the world how they are permitted to see it. As with everyone, they only know what they’ve been exposed to. For the most part, and for many ideally, children know what mother allows or what teacher has taught. But their dislike of these limitations along with the sparse number of experiences they’ve faced manifests as curiosity. The same innocent curiosity that guided Alice down the rabbit-hole and that Lewis Carroll invites his readers to nurture and explore with the idea that it’s the bridge to imagination, knowledge, and understanding.
When a child reads a book, utterly engrossed with their nose so close they might fall into its pages, they gain not only a wider vocabulary and a better grasp of language but are introduced to recognizable worlds different from their own. Books, like rabbit-holes, have a depth far greater than what’s seen at the surface. Imagine shining a light down a rabbit-hole: no matter how the torch is tilted, seeing its full depth, the world beyond the beam of light, is impossible. Literature and fantasy, however, don’t have this limitation. The reading child can delve as deep into a book as their desire to understand will take them but it’s their curiosity that leads them to flip each page, the work then illuminating the child’s mind in such a way that they aren’t blinded by life’s harsh realities.
“‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)”, opens the second chapter showing Alice and her first interactions with the creatures of Wonderland, an alternate reality she wouldn’t have had access to had she not let her curiosity lead the way. Any responsible adult in charge of a child has the basic rules of stay close by, within earshot and eyesight, and any rule-following child will do as they are told. But children don’t always do what they’re told. Alice’s act of chasing the time-obsessed rabbit shows children that curiosity, their natural instinct to look for boredom relievers, to question the world, and to want to know, is a valuable trait, while Carroll’s choice of improper English shows children the secret of the adult world: there are no rules. Well… they’re arbitrary at the very least. One would think that a book of all things is where the rules of language and grammar should be held to the highest standards. Good is not an adverb and curiouser isn’t even a word, but how strange it is that the reader still understands what Alice is saying. The sentence didn’t fall apart, the message was still conveyed, and Alice, at this point, has gone through some transformations but all-in-all is perfectly fine, despite doing something she shouldn’t have. Because Alice broke the rules in the name of curiosity she was lead to fantastical things and it’s through this display that Carroll invites his young readers to give in to their “burning…curiosity”, to try things out, to explore and discover a wonderfully different world that parallels their own through the safety of a book’s pages.
Wonderland is filled with strange and unusual, queer and curious things. So much so that curiosity and curious are used 17 times while the word queer, that can be understood as a synonym to curious, is used 9 times throughout the book. (Yes, I counted.) By using distinct but similarly uncommon words to describe unusualness, the author is able to show children that a single concept can be expressed in multiple ways, each one unique and interesting. Although Alice could have said that a grin without a cat was the queerest thing she’d ever seen in her life or how curious everything was today, Carroll gets at the heart of curiosity when he writes: “’That’s very curious!’ she thought. ‘But everything’s curious today. I think I may as well go in at once.’ And in she went.” Although queer could technically have been used in place of curious we’re shown the sentiment of what curiosity is. It’s simultaneously a description of something strange and the reaction that that strange something elicits. It’s this curiosity that causes Alice to open the door that leads to the garden that she’s been seeking. By showing the multiple meanings of a single word and the multiple words that hold a single meaning, Carroll reveals the amazing ability of books to implicitly teach its readers about the plurality of life. Plurality, the philosophical notion that there are more than one truth, more than one reality, is learned and better understood through reading because books allow children to traverse between their own worlds, lives, and realities and the ones found in paperback pages. That Alice has to morph and crawl and push through a multitude of entrances to get to the garden of symbolic knowledge shows the young reader that self-awareness and enlightenment, the truths held in literary gardens, are not easy to attain but can be found if they are curious enough to seek it as reading allows the mind to think as another person. By experiencing diverse realities and thinking another person’s thoughts, the young reader is able to gain the enlightenment of empathy.
Literature coupled with children’s inherent curiosity allow them to learn about the world in ways that cannot simply be taught. It’s the best kind of teacher because it starts from within. That is, the curious child will learn because they want to learn. They’re learning not because they’re forced to sit in rows and listen to pontifications. Instead, they’re understanding and making sense of whatever piqued their curiosity because it piqued their curiosity. The child’s drive to understand exists because they are interested, curious about what it is they seek to understand. The limited world view that children possess is broadened every time they open a book, each word devoured with the burning curiosity of what will happen next or what else can happen. Although vocabulary is taught in class, a reader is exposed to the real-life uses of these words and urged to figure out for themself how and why each word can be used. A reading child is revealed realms where their imagination is meant to reign giving their thoughts and ideas authority in contrast to their reality of adults who seem to have all the answers. In the province of literature, a child is free to understand the text however they understand it because reading is a personal experience: the reality exists within its pages and within the reader’s thoughts and imagination. In reading, a child is taught to think for themself as well as to think for others in that their thoughts and understanding of a situation mingle with what is written on the page, what is said or thought by a character. By these means a child is implicitly taught to empathize causing them to gain a better understanding of people and emotions, the main constituents to the world around them. The ability for deeper, self-sought learning is what Alice in Wonderland invites children to discover with the wonderful message that the safety of literature is a fantastic way to understand the curious world in which we live.