Alice is a little too Marmite for some tastes, and I totally understand if a certain film or stage adaptation or past edition of the book itself put you off for life.
But there’s no denying the impact Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s ground-breaking 1865 children’s story made, inspiring generations of children and adults, including several authors.
You can add recent writewyattuk interviewee Cathy Cassidy to all three categories, the best-selling children’s writer revisiting Carroll’s tales again and again over the years.
So when she was asked by the team at Puffin to write her own Alice-themed children’s book to help mark that big anniversary, she jumped at the chance …. or down the rabbit hole perhaps.
Despite that leap, in some respects Cathy is on solid ground with Looking Glass Girl, tackling some of the staples of her past success – issues like fitting in, bullying and peer pressure, friendship and first-love. There’s even the odd foray into cake and chocolate. All part of CC’s winning recipe for young fiction.
But here she gets to do all that in a slightly darker setting, immersing herself into that labyrinth of wrong turns Carroll carved out all those years before. Yet despite the potential pitfalls, she manages to come through the other side of the mirror (okay, that’s enough throwaway Alice imagery now).
This is no clumsy retelling, Cathy instead crafting the story of modern-day Alice Beech as she tries to make her way through the maze of adolescence, in a book chock-full of Wonderland imagery.
Cathy’s Alice is trying to come to terms with a change in the friends she got on so well with before high school, but who then dropped her like a stone to join the popular set.
She’s also learning to stand on her own feet – waking up to her true self rather than just blindly fitting in, despite that reluctance to stand out from the crowd, something the majority of young readers can relate to.
Ms Beech’s love of drama has helped, a passion that led to her landing the key part of her namesake in her previous school’s Wonderland stage production.
That premise shouldn’t put off those who feel Alice isn’t for them though. And similarly it shouldn’t put off those who love the book and feel this might be a watered-down or unfaithful take on it all. Because it isn’t.
As we join the tale, our protagonist is unconscious and on her way to hospital after falling down stairs in suspect circumstances during an Alice-themed sleepover at ‘queen of the school’ Savannah’s house.
What follows is something of a reconstruction of what happened that night, piecing together Alice’s memory through flashbacks and Wonderland-related dream sequences as she battles back amid bedside vigils from family, friends and possible foes.
There’s no cheap moralising, and even the less-palatable characters are believable. And while the coma gives the story a darker edge, it’s no more sinister than the original text.
It appears effortless for all the carefully-constructed content, Cathy subtly inter-weaving various characters from the original text into her narrative, suggesting similarities between them and her own creations.
In the way the original stories are surreal and somewhat unsettling, there are elements of that too, not least the part-nightmare, part-fantasy world of Alice’s dreamlike state.
As Alice looks to understand her classmates’ motives, there’s that sense of danger too, her fellow teens pushing the boundaries, not least through their modern twist on the original ‘drink me’ sequence and their secretive invite for a group of boys to this girls-only party.
Alice’s blossoming relationship with Luke is also key, the lad who played the Mad Hatter in that school play still holding a candle for her, to the dismay of one of those old friends.
And throughout the coma sequences we get echoes of Carroll’s tales, Alice – so au fait with the story – meeting the White Rabbit, the Duchess, the Lory, Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and many others who seem to hold the key to her memory.
All play a part in that potential unlocking, the White Queen’s conundrum of living backwards or forwards just one dilemma translated to Alice’s amnesia and a determination to unravel this mystery.
Meanwhile, the confusion brought on by her cerebral bleed fits perfectly with the Queen of Hearts’ ‘off with her head’ command, Alice feverishly trying to comprehend exactly what happened to her and somehow get safely home.
In the same way that you can read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There from a child’s perspective and an older reader’s point of view, you can do that here too.
Of course, I won’t need to win over Cathy Cassidy fans. They’ve read enough to happily snap up anything with her name on it. All the same, Looking Glass Girl is a winning departure for her, and it’s worth noting the author’s respect for the original texts, doing Carroll’s rich legacy justice.
Looking Glass Girl by Cathy Cassidy (Puffin) is available in hardback, paperback and e-book and audio formats from all good independent booksellers, online, and through various other sources, not least your local library.
Meanwhile, check back on this blog shortly for a special feature marking the 150th anniversary of the original Macmillan publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.