When I first read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, aged nine, I thought it was a cool, funny fantasy. When I read it again five years on, it felt like a very different story; dark, nightmarish, surreal. Both times I identified strongly with Alice… her wide-eyed innocence, her curiosity, her struggle to make sense of a world that had suddenly turned upside-down.
Alice was my heroine back then, and she still is; in some ways, her story is every girl’s story of growing up, and when I was nine years old it sounded great. By the time I was fourteen, that tumble down the rabbit-hole into adolescence wasn’t looking quite so cool. For some of us, like Alice, those years are not quite the Wonderland they are flagged up to be… more of a stumbling, sometimes frightening journey in a land where nothing makes sense any more.
Sometimes, like Alice, I felt huge, lumbering, awkward; at other times, I shrank away to nothing, mouse-like, tiny. Often, I failed to understand the rules other people seemed to work out so effortlessly… at times it seemed like adolescence was one huge practical joked being played on me by invisible and faintly malevolent gods. Like Alice, I cried whole oceans of tears, and sometimes found myself drowning in them.
If I struggled with adolescence, what must it feel like for girls in 2015? You’d have to be blind not to notice the stresses facing young people now; tests, exams, assessments… and a constant pressure to look (and be) fashionable, beautiful, perfect. The ‘looking glass’ holds such a silent tyranny for today’s teens that the impulse might not be so much to push through it to find Wonderland as to smash the whole thing to pieces. A teenager’s biggest fear is of being judged and found wanting, and in 2015 our society has a dark underbelly of sneering, judgmental gossip that cannot be healthy for vulnerable teens. Let’s remember that behind the perfectly styled hair and cat’s-eye eyeliner, most teen girls are no more sophisticated than Alice; they are just girls, trying to make sense of the world around them and not always succeeding.
Alice, both the fictional version and the Victorian child who inspired her, was strong, determined, spirited… but one hundred and fifty years ago, when Lewis Carroll’s book was first published, not every girl could be a heroine. For most girls then, life’s confines were narrow and the opportunities to push the boundaries were few. These days, we have a whole lot more freedom, even if it does come at a price, and every girl can be a heroine. We’ve learned that rather than waiting to be rescued by a prince on a white charger, we have the power to change things ourselves, to speak out and be strong.
Over the last year, I’ve found myself speaking up for our threatened libraries… carrying banners, making speeches, lobbying, marching, writing, working with campaigners and children alike to save these awesome resources which open the doors of learning, imagination, culture and opportunity to all. We can all learn from Alice; she never gives up, never stops trying to challenge the craziness and find the wonder. Sometimes, when you care about something very much, you find the courage to step outside your comfort zone and do what’s right, and maybe there’s a kind heroism in that. Brave, strong, feisty girls… we need them now more than ever; girls who will stand up, speak up, change the world for the better. I think Alice would approve…
Looking Glass Girl, by Cathy Cassidy – a modern-day re-imagining of Alice’s story – will be available on 2nd April 2015.
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You can find even more amazing content from some of our best loved authors, talking about their heroines, on the Five Dials page now.