“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar

Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll, Illustrated by Rébecca Dautremer
Hodder
Dec 2015, RRP $29.99

alice_in_wonderland_dautremerEnglish speaking readers might not be familiar with Rébecca Dautremer. It might be informative to think of her as a sort of French Shaun Tan. On the other hand, it might be just as true to say that Shaun Tan is an Australian Rébecca Dautremer. It all depends on one’s perspective. Rébecca Dautremer is the illustrator of over forty children’s books, many of which have never been translated for Anglophones. Her illustrations are gentle, thoughtful and brimming with a charm and surreal beauty that renders each page into something that touches upon the ethereal.

A number of 150 year anniversary Alice in Wonderland books have been released this year, though for my money the Rébecca Dautremer illustrated version is quite possibly the most arresting and treasure-worthy. And that, I think, is what you should be looking for in a new copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It ought to be something that a child (or adult) can treasure and return to over and over. The Rébecca Dautremer illustrated version has all the traits of a book to be treasured. The production quality is high. Full colour plates are brimming with detail and small visual tricks and jokes to pour over in addition to their broad charm and beauty. The accompanying pencil sketches are equally lovely, and often form little mini-sequences, as if Rébecca was thinking as much of animation or cartoons as static illustration. Perhaps that is unsurprising. The French genre of bande dessinée, roughly translated, ‘drawn stories’, is taken far more seriously than comics are in the Anglosphere. A little of that sensibility of the motion of illustration has bled over here I suspect. The pencil illustration showing the outgrowth of the Cheshire Cat from seedling smile into balloonish head being one of my favourites in the book.

For parents who want to read aloud from the work, the text is lightly arranged, with a good amount of white space. The chapters are clearly defined too, which helps when reading aloud and deciding where and when to stop for the night. Immediately after reading through my copy I began making a mental list of friends who have children of about the right age. I plan to do the rounds, either recommending the book, or simply buying a copy outright and handing it over. It really is that lovely.

One other thing worth noting about this version. It is to my knowledge the first version of Alice in Wonderland where an illustrator has attempted to represent Alice as Alice Liddell, who inspired the original work. In doing so, Rébecca Dautremer has managed to escape the shadow of the classic illustrators, John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham, and others. Alice has tended to go through slight changes and variations over time as new illustrators reimagine her. Alice is not the blond waif in blue and white: she is darker, contemplative and pixy-faced. I certainly hope that Rébecca Dautremer’s vision becomes part of the enduring canon. It certainly deserves as much.

 

 

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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2 Comments

  1. Justin Todd has also illustrated the Alice books with Alice Liddell as Alice.

  2. Christopher Johnstone

    Thanks. I wasn’t aware of the Justin Todd illustrations. They are very different to the work by Rébecca Dautremer, but quite beautiful in their different way. The Todd illustrations strike me as more poised and more composed, more like frozen memories perhaps.

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