#KeepKidsReading classic audiobook review – “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

I was first given this book as a child in primary school (I still have my copy!) and though I recall reading it, I’m not sure what I thought about it at the time. I read it again (along with the sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass) while I was an English literature undergraduate (this time exploring the symbolism and the place of the work in the history of literature). It is easy to forget that this book was written in the Victorian era (it was first published in 1865), a time when children were definitely meant to be seen and not heard. Alice is nearly subversive when thought about in that context!

I came across the audiobook recently, read, to my excitement, by the marvellous actor Jodie Comer, who comes from Liverpool but who seems able to mimic just about any accent. As I had a longish solo car journey, I thought it would be the perfect accompaniment. I was slightly disappointed that Jodie Comer read it in a (perfectly executed) received pronunciation – fitting to the book’s period, but I think it might make it sound somewhat dated to a modern child’s ear. There was a wide range of other accents too though, various northern and west country voices for the animals. 

I listened in one sitting and it really is a marvel. I had forgotten just how many different ‘episodes’ there are! I was reminded of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which I think draws on the legacy that was established by Alice. I am currently watching season three of the BBC television adaptation of that series (which is further than I have read in the books) and I am struck by the succession of ‘worlds’ (or multiverses as I think it would be more fashionable to call them). Alice goes through a series of changes as she passes through the different areas of Wonderland and encounters different animals, some familiar, some fantasy, and different forms of people (such as the royal playing cards). As an adult, I have to admit that I have found this a little tedious at times – there is a kind of impatience in my watching/listening. But, of course, children have a much greater tolerance for this sort of thing and it’s probably a strong argument against bingeing. It’s simply too rich!

Listening to Alice, my absolute favourite section was the mock turtle’s story. I love the nonsense logic and I think the puns will make children laugh as much as I did. In performance terms, Jodie Comer had great fun with the Queen of Hearts and the King and the repetitions of “off with his head” got increasingly melodramatic. Again, children will love the anarchic humour.

Alice was a reaction to the constraints placed on children and the virtual denial of childhood in the late nineteenth century. Alice refers to the events going on around her as “curiouser and curiouser”, but of course, she is also curious, drinking potions and eating biscuits and mushrooms, even though she knows this is against every rule she has been taught, just for the hell of it, to see what happens. The message here is that curiosity is rewarded with adventures and rules can be broken…sometimes!

Some parts of this book may well feel dated to 21st century ears, and I was listening out for things that might offend, in the way that some have been offended by Roald Dahl recently, but Alice is much more fantastical, in my view. Its entertainment value for younger children remains strong, however, and Alice’s innocence still rings true. 

#KeepKidsReading Book Review – “Raven Winter” by Susanna Bailey

Having another #KeepKidsReading week on my blog has given me an ‘excuse’ to read a book which has been on my TBR pile for some time. It also fits perfectly with my reading challenge this year, which is to pick a long-ago purchased but so far neglected book off my bulging shelves. The first book of the year that I chose was Hilary Mantel’s early novella Fludd, a review of which I’ll post next week, but I wanted to tell you this week about Raven Winter. I picked this up when it was first published early last year, but somehow have never got to it. I’m so glad I did! 

The main character and narrator is Billie a twelve or thirteen year-old girl who lives with her ‘Mam’ and Mam’s boyfriend, Daniel in a flat somewhere in north east England. Billie moved to the flat relatively recently, having had to leave their previous home after her father went to prison for fraud against his employer. Billie has also started at a new school and is finding it difficult to make friends. People seem to know about her family situation and she has experienced some bullying. 

The other perhaps somewhat darker cloud in Billie’s life is Daniel, who is a dark and brooding presence throughout the book. He is a dominant and controlling character and there are strong suggestions that his intimidation of Billie’s mother is both physical and psychological. Billie cannot understand why her mother not only tolerates Daniel, but actually wants Billie to like him, welcome him as a substitute father. Billie misses her own father terribly; they were very close and shared a passion for nature and particularly birds. It is clear that there are secrets, that Billie has not been told the full story of her father’s ongoing absence, why they have lost contact with him, have not visited him for many months, and, now that his three year sentence has come to an end, why they are not reunited as a family.

Billie wants to run away. She sets out to do this one day, fleeing to a wild woodland area close to her home, Tanglewood, which her mother has warned her to stay away from. There, she finds an injured young raven and decides to take it home to nurse it back to health. Her relationship with the raven reminds of her father and brings her comfort. 

Raven Winter  is Susanna Bailey’s third book exploring the therapeutic relationship between animals and children who are facing challenging circumstances. Her first novel Snow Foal dealt was about a child going into foster care, and her second Otter’s Moon deals with divorce and relocation. Bailey clearly draws on her real-life experiences in the field of social work for her subjects. Raven Winter does suggest domestic abuse and a parent who is absent due to being in jail – tough topics – but I think it is done sensitively and gently. It is ‘middle-grade’ fiction after all, for the 8-12 age group. The bigger theme of the book in my view though is how children can find comfort in nature, how non-judgmental animals can help a child who feels alone, and how caring for someone or something outside of themselves, can be cathartic.

Bailey creates a lovely engaging character in Billie and the book is written very much from her point of view. To that extent I think it will encourage empathy in young readers. I also liked the way that the author ties up the ending. Even a few pages from the end it is not clear how things will turn out, so it will keep children interested. All the loose ends are tied up, but not in a schmaltzy, happily ever after way, rather in a realistic way that bears greater resemblance to the complexities of real life. It does end with hope, however, and that is the main thing needed in these sorts of books when they are aimed at this age group.

Recommended, and if Bailey’s other books are this good, they will provide ample material for children who enjoy this one. 

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