Each generation creates new illustrations of our classics, just as every era re-translates the foreign masterpieces. Apparently, we require our own idiom.
The latest such re-envisioning is Helen Oxenbury's sparkling new edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for Candlewick Press. Since its publication in 1865, Alice has been interpreted by many illustrators. Lewis Carroll himself was first, but he wasn't deemed competent to portray his imaginary world in the published book and its sequel. As a result, the volumes will forever be associated with the witty, stylized drawings of John Tenniel. But there have been other famous portrayals. Arthur Rackham's scenes are as moody as a Grimm fairy tale; Ralph Steadman's characters are needlessly grotesque; Barry Moser's Humpty Dumpty resembles Richard Nixon.
Helen Oxenbury has joined the long tradition, but definitely given the book her own bright twist. The Rabbit and Dormouse are extremely rabbitty and mousey. With his pencil mustache, the overweight, slouching Hatter looks like Oliver Hardy on a bad day. Most important for drawing young readers into this challenging masterpiece, Oxenbury's Alice looks like one of them. She is a modern-looking blond girl in a sleeveless blue dress and white sneakers and she has an appropriately feisty air. When the Red Queen rails at her, Alice stands with her hands on her hips and glares back. She leans on a table and gazes longingly at the stolen tarts. Following the tumble into the Pool of Tears, she looks drenched and convincingly shivery. Helen Oxenbury's paintings and drawings have a fitting kind of playful innocence that some other versions lack, which will draw young readers. Particularly impressive is her take on some of the requisite bring-down-the-house numbers several pages of Alice shrinking and growing, double-page spreads of the tea party and the trial of the Knave of Hearts.
The volume is oversized, the typeface large and friendly, the margins generous. This beautiful book quietly takes Alice out of the inky hands of scholars and places her back in the hands of children, where she has always belonged.