Different strokes;Children's classics;Books

29th October 1999 at 01:00
The surreal adventures of an Edwardian schoolgirl called Alice have been replayed on page and screen ever since she first fell down the rabbit hole. Below, Elaine William ponders what makes life beyond the looking glass so compelling and is impressed by the latest quirky adaptation for Channel 4 Schools, while, opposite, Joanna Carey praises twomodern illustrators' forays into Wonderland.

Over the years, Alice has attracted the attention of some distinguished artists, including Arthur Rackham, W Heath Robinson, Salvador Dal!, Ralph Steadman, Tony Ross and Anthony Browne. But it is Sir John Tenniel's image of Alice, created for the original publication of the book in 1865, that is indelibly engraved on the public consciousness, and which must inevitably influence almost all subsequent illustrators.

So, even to think about reinterpreting "Alice in Wonderland", an illustrator must necessarily have a strong sense of purpose. Helen Oxenbury's stated aim is "to make it accessible for today's children", and she succeeds brilliantly in creating an Alice with whom present-day children can identify. Tenniel's Alice is famous for her straight-faced, straight-laced, buttoned-up demeanour. By doing away with the buttoned shoes and the starchy skirts, and allowing just the occasional smile, Oxenbury gives us a cheerful, slightly younger child with an unruly mop of hair (left), not unlike the little girl in "We're Going on a Bear Hunt", her classic picture book created with Michael Rosen.

This Alice scampers about bare-legged in plimsolls, and her liberatingly skimpy cotton shift allows her a much more physical involvement in her adventures, whether she's sprawling indolently on the grass, shinning up the slippery leg of the (superbly imagined) glass table, crammed (rather inelegantly) in the White Rabbit's drawing-room, dodging missiles in the Duchess's chaotic kitchen or, in a glorious double spread (the very finest of these remarkable illustrations), shivering with cold alongside all the animals as they dry off after their swim. Younger children, and those who have difficulty with Alice's prodigious conversational abilities, will certainly be able to read her body language. And with nearly 50 full-page watercolours and lots of drawings and vignettes, there's a picture to enjoy at almost every opening.

Oxenbury is a versatile artist with an exceptional gift for drawing animals (she designed the bear logo for her publisher, Walker). Whether they're fantastical like the Gryphon, flamboyantly anthropomorphic like the White Rabbit, or just plain cuddlesome like the guinea pigs, her creatures all have a robust anatomical reality, each one characterised with wit and sensitivity. She also has an expressive line and fluid watercolour technique, and the work is further enhanced by the superb reproduction and the high quality of the matt-finish paper. With its sturdy, square format and its irresistibly tactile qualities, this really is a handsome volume.

Lisbeth Zwerger's watercolour illustrations (right) create an entirely different atmosphere. Demurely clad in white with a distinctive swoosh of brown hair, Alice has a watchful, introspective manner. With subtle textures, translucent colours and ethereal shadows, Zwerger treads softly in the curiously detailed, but selective logic of Alice's puzzling dream world.

As a child, I was puzzled by Tenniel's Mock Turtle, with its big ears and cloven hooves. My mother explained by showing me an ancient edition of "Mrs Beeton's Everyday Cookery" (first published, like Alice, in the 1860s) in which the principal ingredient for mock turtle soup is a boiled calf's head. (I rather wished I hadn't asked.) But Zwerger doesn't evade the issue: her Mock Turtle is a moist-eyed little calf peering from beneath a pretend shell.

In addition to a number of smaller drawings, there are 12 full-page illustrations. Most magical, perhaps, is the image of Alice, no bigger than a mouse, suspended above her shadow in the salt water of her own tears - an exquisite figure, so tiny in relation to the tessellated floor tiles that gleam from beneath the gossamer surface of the pool. It's a beautiful composition reflecting all the wit, subtlety and finesse of Zwerger's art.

Alice's Adventures In WonderlandBy Lewis Carroll. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. Walker Books pound;14.99Alice in WonderlandBy Lewis Carroll. Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. North-South pound;14.99

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