Monday, May 14, 2007

Another Alice Post: After 142 Years

Whenever I go into a used bookstore (and often when I go into a mainstream bookstore), I make a beeline for the children's section.

This isn't just because I have a soft spot for kid-lit, although I do. It's because children's books have one thing adult books do not: different illustrators.

Thus, every time I am in a used bookstore, I am bound to find some old copy of a strange, out-of-print run of Little Women or Anne of Green Gables or Peter Pan. It is a rare trip which does not lead me to a new, undiscovered illustrator.

The director in me loves the vast variety of pictoral interpretations of, say, the four March sisters. ("Will they actually draw them as the ages they are in the story, or will they make them all willowy and busty and coquettishly adult?")

But the prize, of course, is finding a new Alice.

Well. When I started planning to direct Alice in Hyderabad I did a bit of serious research into editions of Alice and their illustrators. After all, in the scores of editions that have passed through the press since the book's first publication in 1865, there have been all kinds of drawings of Alice: Tenniel, of course, but also Rackham and Peake and, fairly recently, Oxenbury, whose drawings I adore.

There have been mod Alices and modern Alices; Alices in blue dresses and Alices in blue jeans; Alices at every stage of sexuality and development; Alices in the fashion of every decade.

And yet Alice has always been drawn as white as I am. This troubles me, a bit; the text sets her plainly in Victorian England, but if illustrators reach all around to place Alice in whatever year and location they choose (rather like directors do with Shakespeare), why has no one ever reached for anything besides the "peach"-colored crayon?

Is Alice "universal," as is often claimed, or isn't she? (And I'd almost go so far as to make the argument that the publishers and illustrators have proven, by their choices, that she isn't.)

However, I just found out that Disney has cast Beyonce as Alice in their promotional venture "Year of a Million Dreams." I usually hate Disney, but I have to give them credit for breaking past assumptions and giving us what I believe is the first Alice "of color."

Here's the picture. The photographer is Annie Liebowitz.

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