Where Was Wonderland?: A Traveller’s Guide To The Settings Of Classic Children’s Books by Frank Barrett
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
My reading of the slim canon of children’s literary tour guides (the others I’ve come across are listed here) continues with ‘Where Was Wonderland?’; a quick, problematic and yet strangely appealing read.
Written in 1997 and suffering, awfully, from the passage of time (the chapter on Dick King-Smith offers the painful titbit that tourists may be able to see the author at his local agricultural shows), Where Was Wonderland is structured in a similar manner to its contemporaries. Each chapter deals with a specific book – ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, ‘Watership Down’ and so on before deviating wildly from this established UK based discourse with two chapters on ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and ‘The Little Prince’ respectively.
Each chapter offers a recap of the relevant story, a brief biography of the author and then a suggested tour for readers to follow. Quite charmingly, the tours themselves are usually accompanied with hand-drawn maps which are probably the book’s biggest selling points. It’s a quick, transitory read without these maps but with them, gains an oddly appealing element that distinguishes itself from its peers.
‘Where was Wonderland’ does adhere quite ruthlessly to the rules, if we can call them that, established by its contemporaries in the genre. The selection of texts is consciously established as being of, and dealing with, classic children’s books but then includes chapters such as ‘Rob Roy’, ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Cider with Rosie’ which slightly sit at odd with this. It’s interesting in that with guides of this nature they do tend to reflect a very personal agenda (I know, for example, should I write one, I’d be tempted to do it all in Austria and be terribly self-indulgent about it all).
Whilst acknowledging that is vital and quite understandable, it’s also worthwhile considering the impact of that bias upon the book itself. What is this a guide too? Is it a guide to the classic children’s books that can be ‘found’ in real life? Is it a guide to texts that have an established geographical context? Or is it, rather, a guide to texts that have impacted upon the author and thus created this situated response of their own, manifested in the geography of our lived-in existence? Or is it me, perhaps, who’s reading these from my own context and affixing this personal context and subtext to these guides in a way that I’d never do with, say, the Rough Guide to Paris?
I don’t know, yet, but I do know that these odd niche tributes to children’s literature and their roots in the real world remain vividly appealing to me in a way that perhaps not many other books are. They feel symptomatic, somehow, of our hope in literature and of our faith in reading and that will never not call to me.