Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Dover Thrift Editions)
By Lewis Carroll
Illustrated. 96 pp. Dover. $2.50
Is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a chapter book? It does indeed have chapters–twelve of them in fact. But “chapter book” has come to mean a book with simple language and brief chapters, one written especially for children who are just beginning to read independently.
Although Alice’s chapters and sentences are relatively short and lively, this is definitely not an early-reader book. Even children who are reading well above grade level might wonder, upon finishing it, “What was that all about?”
It’s not because Alice is a fantasy. Children can easily understand a make-believe world with unusual events and talking animals. Nor is it because the themes get a bit dark at times. (Just consider E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.) And it’s not because it was published in 1865 and the vocabulary may need some interpretation. No, it’s more than that.
This book should be read aloud because it’s funny.
And children are likely to miss the humor if they read Alice on their own. But if an adult smiles or laughs while reading a passage aloud, a child is likely to prod the reader for explanations: “What’s so funny, Dad? Tell me.”
Here’s a conversation between Alice and the Mock Turtle. They’re comparing school experiences:
“I couldn’t afford to learn it,” said the Mock Turtle with a sigh. “I only took the regular course.”
“What was that?” inquired Alice.
“Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,” the Mock Turtle replied; “and then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.”
Children start to understand wordplay and puns at around age seven or eight because at that age they have the cognitive ability to hold two ideas in mind simultaneously. They can understand that “reeling and writhing” sounds like “reading and writing” and “ambition” like “addition” and so on. But they still need an adult guide in order to catch the nuances—and the pleasure.
Unfortunately, in recent years, seven or eight is the age at which we often stop reading aloud to children. Just when they’re at the cusp of understanding complex wordplay, what do we do? We shorten the sentences and simplify the vocabulary. Certainly chapter books provide a necessary opportunity to practice reading skills and to discover the pleasures of reading independently. But a child’s listening level is generally years above his or her reading level. Nourish that comprehension by sharing a complex, word-rich book like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Besides, it’s fun.
Reviewed by Sally Nurss