The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 9, No 1 (2005)

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Caroline Jones, editor

Making Sense of Nonsense: An Examination of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth as Allegories of Children's Learning

Maryn Brown

Maryn Brown is currently completing a Master of Arts in Children's Literature degree through the School of Library Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia.

Hailed as pre-eminent works of nonsense fantasy, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) quickly became and so remain landmarks of children's literature. As their respective protagonists, Alice and Milo, wander through unfamiliar and illogical other-worlds and find their knowledge continually exercised, confused and contradicted, both works effectively function as allegories of children's learning. For, as Tolkien notes, "Children's knowledge of the world is often so small that they cannot judge, off-hand and without help, between the fantastic, the strange (that is rare or remote facts), the nonsensical, and the merely 'grown up'" (38-9). Representative of two "golden moments" in children's literature, Alice and Tollbooth employ nonsense and word play to acknowledge children's experiences and struggles with tedium, educational methods, language, mathematics, manners, justice and their own processes of individuation.

Although Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth respectively mark the creative epicentres of two revolutionary publishing eras that shook the prevailing perceptions of children's literature, only Alice may be said to have almost single-handedly changed this literature's course forever. First published in 1865, Alice has been heralded as inaugurating the Victorian "golden age" of children's literature and signifying "the liberation of children's books from the restraining hand of the moralists" (Carpenter and Pritchard 102). Though published in the still-influential wake of the Rational and Sunday School Moralists' pedantry, or what Charles Lamb refers to as, "'Mrs. Barbauld's stuff' and 'Mrs. Trimmer's nonsense'" (qtd. in Demers and Moyles 220), Alice not only lacks didacticism, but parodies it. "Considering the emphasis on information, didacticism, piety, and the daily routine of youthful life presented in the children's novel," writes Sheila Egoff, it is "astounding" that this thoroughly nonsensical fantasy was written when it was (35).

Though Victorian society was notoriously straight-laced in its valuation of educational and social conformity, an emergent appreciation of childhood fostered a revolt against the literary dampening of children's imaginations and individuality. In her preface to Holiday House (1839), Catherine Sinclair mourns the loss of children's individualism and remarks, "All play of imagination is now carefully discouraged, and books written for young persons are generally a mere record of dry facts" (qtd. in Carpenter and Pritchard 256). Though far from free of tuition, a brief, quasi-nonsensical fairy tale is also included in Holiday House. Even Charles Dickens' realistic novel, Hard Times (1854), reproves the education system's excessive employment of facts and demonstrates children's need for fantasy. Likewise, as Demers and Moyles note, Henry Cole intended his Home Treasury (1841-49) series of imaginative rhymes, fables and fairy tales to stand in "opposition to the [Peter] Parley school of facts without fancy" (220). Yet, even Edward Lear's truly nonsensical and purely entertaining limericks found in A Book of Nonsense (1846) did not become the pivot on which children's literature turned. It took Alice--a full-fledged nonsensical fantasy which not only aims simply to delight, but does so by child-centrically turning Victorian social and educational precepts on their heads--to free children from the stranglehold that factual, moralizing literature hitherto had over their scholastic and leisure reading.

Although The Phantom Tollbooth is neither the inaugurator nor, perhaps, the pinnacle of such a revolutionary time in children's literature as is Alice, it may certainly be seen as a unique and ultimately classic product of one. Maurice Sendak describes Tollbooth as "pure gold" and explains, "It was published in New York city in 1961, that golden moment in American children's book publishing when we lucky kids . . . were all swept up in a publishing adventure full of risks and high jinks" (n. pag.). Children of this era were experiencing new status and their literature was becoming more textually and illustratively colourful. Psychoanalysts and cognitive psychologists such as Freud, Piaget and Vygotsky had taken interest in children, revealing them to be the deeply emotional, self-evaluative, imaginative and active learners that they are. Accordingly, children finally began to see themselves depicted realistically rather than idealistically in "their" literature--even their literary selves were occasionally afforded a subconscious (and its concomitant problems). Moreover, the 1950s had seen the prolific publication of landmark works of fantasy[1], a genre established by Jungian and Freudian theory as "a valid metaphor for the passage of human life itself" (Tucker 164). Thus, Milo's all too familiar frustrations with learning and his fantastic and nonsense-belaboured quest to return Rhyme and Reason to the City of Wisdom resonate and ring true.

Yet, while the adult world was busy making sense of children, children were still having trouble making sense of what must have seemed--particularly with the proliferation of television--to be an increasingly large world. In the 1960s, kids were granted more autonomy and were increasingly entitled to select their own reading materials and thereby participate in voluntary or "open reading." Ever more conferred a culture of their own, children had ample pleasure reading--from comic books to the nascent "problem" novel--to choose from. However, the gap between children's interests and their scholastic reading was widening. Even Dr. Seuss' imaginative alternative to early readers, The Cat in the Hat (1957), could not usurp classroom sovereignty from the prosaic Dick and Jane books. Schools were still necessarily purveyors of facts and children were still required to assemble these facts into meaningful wholes. Just as Victorian children needed a hero like Alice to subvert facts and thus liberate them from moralising literature, children of the 1960s needed heroes like Milo to bring rhyme and reason to learning, to make sense of facts. How remarkable that nonsense proves the perfect vehicle for both the undermining and the understanding of facts.

From the first pages of their respective stories, it is painfully apparent that Alice and Milo are plagued by ennui and a general disenchantment with learning. Alice is "tired" of "having nothing to do" and, after glimpsing at her sister's book, Alice wonders, "what is the use of a book . . . without pictures or conversations?" (Carroll 9). She also frequently decries school lessons, making such remarks as, "always to have lessons to learn! Oh, I shouldn't like that !" (Carroll 33). Similarly, when Milo is introduced it is told that "nothing" interested him much and, "since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all" (Juster 9). Indeed, Milo himself proclaims, "I can't see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February" (Juster 9).

While Milo admits he "can't see the point" in learning, Alice often demonstratively misses the point of precepts and, like Milo, struggles with the application of things she has learned. When she spots a bottle labelled "DRINK ME," Alice speciously recalls the morals of several Victorian cautionary tales "such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that, . . . if you drink much from a bottle marked 'poison', it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later" (Carroll 13-14). Alice learns that although everything in Wonderland supposedly has a moral, she has to find (or debunk) these herself, just as Milo discovers that in the lands beyond the Tollbooth, "If you want sense [you] have to make it yourself" (Juster 175).

By way of the wily word play they are so often commended for and compared by, Carroll and Juster satirize educational methods--rote or otherwise--which divorce words from meaning. Though Milo doesn't understand his taunt, the Humbug infuriates the "Spelling Bee" by exclaiming, "A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect" (Juster 54). Even the self-proclaimed "advisers" of King Azaz the Unabridged state that making sense is not their job. As many a droning, wordy teacher may seem to, the advisers operate by the fallacious philosophy that, "if one [word] is right, then ten are ten times as right" (Juster 40). The quasi-teacher figures that Alice encounters also value words and memorization over meaning. After delivering a very "dry" history lecture, the Dodo is accused of verbosity. "'Speak English!' [says] the Eaglet. 'I don't know the meaning of half those long words, and, what's more, I don't believe you do either!'" (Carroll 25). The denizens of Wonderland also often order Alice to "repeat" popular Victorian moralising poems; as Alice recalls them incorrectly, these poems and the rote teaching techniques they represent are parodied. When Alice recites "You are old, Father William," and the Caterpillar merely comments, "That is not said right" (Carroll 45). Later, when Alice transposes Isaac Watts' " 'Tis the voice of the sluggard" with "'Tis the voice of the Lobster" (Carroll 93), the impatiently didactic Gryphon assumes that Alice "ca'n't explain" it and yet urges, "Go on with the next verse" (Carroll 94). The Mock Turtle then seemingly speaks on behalf of Victorian students when he asks, "What is the use of repeating all that stuff . . . if you don't explain it as you go on?" (Carroll 94).

Wordplay also functions to signify Alice and Milo's progression from being intimidated or confused by language to wielding it confidently and expediently. In Wonderland Alice is repeatedly criticised for her inability to explain or meaningfully recite poems. But interpretive skills need be nurtured, not imposed. As Juster notes in an online interview for The Purple Crayon with RoseEtta Stone, a consequence of the way in which poetry is often taught is that children are "almost always waiting to be told what it is they have read. Or what it means. Or how important it is." Nevertheless, by the end of her adventures, Alice appears confident in her abilities as a poem analyst. After hearing the poem presented to the jury as evidence in the trial of the Knave of Hearts, Alice wagers, "If any of them can explain it . . . I'll give him a sixpence. I don't believe there's an atom of meaning in it" (Carroll 107). She even proceeds to effectively rebut the King's interpretation of a line by quoting one herself. Alice is also often rebuked for talking nonsense when confused by puns and linguistic ambiguities, yet she learns to effectively turn the tables of logic (or illogic). "You've no right to grow here" (Carroll 99), the Dormouse says to her at the trial when she is reverting to normal size. "'Don't talk nonsense,' [says] Alice more boldly: 'you know you're growing too'" (Carroll 99).

Like Alice, Milo is frequently made to eat his words, but only he must do so figuratively and literally. Yet even after learning to make "tastier speeches," Milo is daunted by language. Ironically, it is by making another "eat words" that his greatest linguistic achievement is symbolized. Reminiscent of quest-literature conventions, King Azaz bestows upon Milo a gift, a box containing all the words and ideas ever voiced. When Milo later discovers that the Gelatinous Giant literally "can't swallow" ideas, he proudly holds the King's gift high, exclaims "I have a box full of all the ideas in the world" (Juster 222), and throws the box into the Giant's gaping mouth. So, Milo saves himself and his quest-mates by symbolically using words "well and in the right places" (Juster 99), as King Azaz assured him he could.

Just as child readers are likely to identify in some way with such allegorical struggles and successes with language, they will likely relate to Alice and Milo's incertitude about the applications and abstractions of mathematics. Feeling "changed" and quite unlike herself, Alice turns to Math before any other discipline in hopes of discovering exactly who she is. Unable to multiply properly, she realises that "the Multiplication Table doesn't signify" (Carroll 19). To the mind of the fact-laden Victorian child, continually informed of the value of mathematical tables, this would be a refreshingly comical statement, to be sure;[2] but it also bears some truth. As Heath explains, Math "is a purely formal science, having nothing to say . . . about questions of empirical fact. A knowledge of such elementary formal truths would thus be of little help for purposes of identification" (25). Milo also grapples with the metaphysical nature and limitations of mathematics. When he meets 0.58 of a child (the average family has 2.58 children), Milo objects, "But averages aren't real . . . they're just imaginary" (Juster 195). Milo "had always had trouble in school with just this subject" (Juster 197). Yet, what child is not at times perplexed by such abstract notions as fractions (broken numbers?), infinity (you can never reach it?), or averages, as is Milo? Learning theorists observe that, "with the emphasis on the practicality of the rudimentary computing skills, nothing in the way the children have been taught mathematics has made them aware of the fascinating world of numbers" (Bettelheim and Zelan 49). Unlike Alice, Milo has at least one tutor who alludes to the magic of abstract arithmetical exercises. The 0.58 child patiently explains, "one of the nicest things about mathematics, or anything else you might care to learn, is that many of the things which can never be, often are" (Juster 197).

Both Tollbooth and Alice depict Math as a somewhat discouraging subject. An exact science of progressive knowledge, Math lends itself to children's "learned helplessness." Milo, who readily admits that he's not very good with problems, boldly objects to the "absurdity" inherent in one of the Dodecahedron's problems, which features a sixty-eight foot beaver. While the Dodecahedron agrees with Milo, he adds, "but it's completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong?" (Juster 175). Sadly, such an attitude, which emphasises correctness and dismisses conceptual meaning and appeal, is all too easily engendered by the age-old practice of computational drilling.[3] When leaving Digitopolis, Milo insists that everything there is too difficult for him and is probably still thwarted by the seeming arbitrariness of "subtracting turnips from turnips." Princess Reason's later counsel remedies Milo's defeatism and seems particularly pertinent to the study of Math: "You must never feel badly about making mistakes . . . as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons" (Juster 233). Because mathematical proficiency depends on the incremental scaffolding of concepts and rules, it is important students learn from mistakes, thus preventing a spiral of misunderstanding. In Alice, even the Mock Turtle's mock courses suggest that while reading and writing might make one "reel" and "writhe," the "branches of Arithmetic--Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision" (Carroll 86)--entail an increasingly discouraging learning curve.

However, certainly not everything children learn is taught in school; as Alice explains in Through the Looking Glass, "Manners are not taught in lessons" (Carroll 225). A child of the 1960s, Milo's manners may simply be described as common courtesy. He demonstrates a respect for authority, always remembers to say "please" and "thank you," is egalitarian in his treatment of various creatures, excuses himself for staring when he meets the 0.58 child, and wonders without prejudice and for "just a moment" how it is that someone with no facial features at all (the Terrible Trivium) can seem so agreeable. Alice, on the other hand, is a child of the 1860s and her sense of propriety may more appropriately be described as the product of a strict code of decorum. For, while illogical conversation may frustrate or confuse her, she is rather intolerant of breaches of decorum.

How appropriate it is, then, that the Mad Tea Party seems a breaking point in Alice's social tolerance. [4] With reference to Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress (1877), a typical etiquette guide of its time, Alice's indignation with the March Hare and the Mad Hatter may be better understood by the contemporary reader. Regarding conversation, Decorum advises against making personal remarks to strangers; using puns, proverbs and riddles; engaging in arguments; frequently consulting one's timepiece; interrupting a person who is speaking and interjections. The Hatter's "first speech" to Alice is, "Your hair wants cutting," to which Alice responds, "You should learn not to make personal remarks . . . it's very rude" (Carroll 60). To this the Hatter responds with the riddle, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" (Carroll 60). Although Alice, being a child and engaged in awkward conversation, is glad of the sport, the riddle is eventually revealed to have no proper answer. Many arguments, several timepiece references and a good deal of confusion later, the Hatter irrevocably offends Alice. "I don't think--" begins Alice before being interrupted by the Hatter who remarks, "Then you shouldn't talk" (Carroll 67). It is this "piece of rudeness" that incites Alice to get up and walk off. Hereafter, our customarily polite and pleasant Victorian protagonist is less tolerant of such social trespasses and "nonsense."

That is not to say, however, that Milo is any less critical of ill-founded rules or contraventions of rights and freedoms, for both Alice and Milo contest the abuses and misuses of justice in the nonsense-ruled realms they visit. Though "childkind" is particularly susceptible to unfair, arbitrary, and extemporaneous rules, those which Alice and Milo impugn are clearly far-fetched and farcical. When in the Doldrums Milo is accused of breaking two "local ordinances," thinking and laughing (though smiling is permitted every other Thursday). Rightly so, Milo dismisses these laws as ridiculous. When at the Knave of Heart's trial, the rapidly growing Alice is asked to leave on account of "Rule Forty-two," namely that all persons exceeding one mile in height must leave the court. Alice refuses to leave and astutely adds, "besides, that's not a regular rule: you invented it just now" (Carroll 105). The King answers with the proverb, "it's the oldest rule in the book" and Alice triumphantly contends that, in that case, it ought to be the first rule in the book, not the forty-second. Carroll's mockery of the justice system seems more deliberate than many of his other social farces. Indeed, neither the mouse's tale about "old Fury" who acts as both judge and jury, nor the presentation of evidence at the Knave's trial appeared in the original manuscript, Alice's Adventures Underground. Yet, whether the Queen yells "first the sentence, and then the evidence!" as in Alice's Adventures Underground (Carroll n. pag.), or "Sentence first--verdict afterwards" as in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Carroll 108), the message is the same and so is Alice's response: "nonsense." Not unlike Carroll's decapitation-happy Queen, Juster's Officer Shrift accuses anyone and everyone of being "guilty." When Milo "forgets" Shrift's birthday (not that he ever knew it) Shrift, who is police officer, judge and jailer, assigns Milo a short sentence, "I am," and six million years in jail. Of all the absurdities that Alice and Milo must evaluate and contend, those concerning their respective justice systems are perhaps the most alarming.

Self-evaluation also figures greatly throughout Alice and Milo's wanderings and wonderings: learning experiences and social comparisons are manifested as inseparable from identity or the process of individuation. Alice and the Caterpillar both seem to subscribe to a Lockean view of personal identity in considering it to be chiefly based on the consistency and continuity of memories (Heath 48). During her first of several identity crises, Alice attempts to correctly recall facts and knowledge learned in her lessons in hopes of discovering who she is. To the same purpose, the Caterpillar later has her recite "You are old, Father William" (Carroll 42). Nevertheless, Alice can remember who she was. Yet, because she cannot recall the things she used to know, Alice assumes that she must have changed into another girl. Alice at one point concludes that she must be Mabel, for Mabel knows "very little." Social comparisons are central to children's early self-concept formations but, even to the youngest of child readers,[5] Alice's thinking herself literally changed for another may well seem an amusing exaggeration of the familiar idea of defining oneself in relation to another. Milo's journey of self-determination largely involves distinguishing himself from the allegorical demons he battles. When in the Doldrums, Milo must think and act in order to avoid becoming a "Lethargian." When in the Mountains of Ignorance, he prevents himself from becoming a "monster of habit" by calculating how much time he is well on his way to wasting (Juster 213). Alice and Milo thus continually struggle with who they are and who they might become.

The journeys in Wonderland and the lands beyond the Tollbooth serve not only as exercises in self-hood and perspective for Alice and Milo, but for the readers who identify with them as well. As Alice considers whether having grown in size means that she has "grown up" and become an adult (Carroll 33), so too will the reader ponder the meaning of maturation. As Milo tries to float like Alec Bings and see the world from a higher "point of view," the reader contemplates with Milo what it means to "look at things as an adult does" (Juster 105). Though Milo's frustrations with learning may be vanquished through allegorical battles and within a nonsensical land, his journey will nevertheless give the reader a sense of just how much a persistent yet "ordinary" boy or girl can do, and just how important a sense of humour is in the journey of learning. After all, when Milo succeeds in his final trial his adversary the Senses Taker exclaims, "I cannot take your sense of humour--and, with it you've nothing to fear from me" (Juster 230). Child readers of Alice may likewise learn about themselves as they vicariously negotiate the trials and absurdities of Wonderland. As Egoff posits, "If modern children listen to Carroll, they will find what could be an appropriate wish for them: to learn self-control, to acquire a sense of identity, and to think logically without ceasing to be sensitive and imaginative" (50).

Carroll's and Juster's narratives operate to both diagnose and remedy children's struggles with learning: by making fun of learning, they make learning fun. As theorists Bettelheim and Zelan explain, "learning, particularly learning to read, must give the child the feeling that through it new worlds will be opened to his mind and imagination" (50). The nonsense worlds visited in Alice and Tollbooth create ideal climates for the consideration of knowledge and its applications, for in them Alice and Milo (and by identification, their child readers) make as much sense or more than any other. Moreover, in discerning nonsense they also consider what is sensible. Although to the adult mind such grossly illogical worlds may seem nightmarish, to the mind of a child such worlds may seem instead a "wonderful dream" (as does Wonderland to Alice), which reflects and thus validates their own daily bouts with confusion wrought by the hodgepodge of learning. Thus, with any luck, the child reader's journey will parallel those of Alice and Milo such that, at journeys' end, all may return to their own "realities" with a fresh perspective on learning, renewed by the power of story.


1 Egoff notes, "The decade of the 1950s is almost as remarkable a period in the development of fantasy as the Victorian Age", and cites the contemporaneously published Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers (and sequels), The Green Knowe Chronicles, and Tom's Midnight Garden as examples. Sheila A. Egoff, Worlds Within: Children's Fantasy from the Middle Ages to Today (Chicago: American Library Association, 1988) 151.

2 Alice's ridiculous attempt to thus identify herself is also reminiscent of Dicken's character Thomas Gradgrind, a teacher and purveyor of facts who carries "the multiplication table in his pocket, Sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic." Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854; London: Chapman &Hall, 1907) 2.

3 It is interesting to note that the ongoing debate between "speeded practice" and "number sense" methods of teaching mathematics parallels that between "basic skills" and "whole language" where the teaching of reading is concerned. While methods emphasizing a basic skills teaching of math and reading prevailed in the 1960s, educators and psychologists now generally promote a blend of basic and holistic methods.

4 For though earlier she tires of the Caterpillar's "short remarks," she still confides in him that she finds the inhabitants of Wonderland to be "easily offended;" and though she finds it "decidedly uncivil" when the Duchess' footman looks at the sky while he addresses her, she forgives him on account of his being a fish. Note also that Alice's "breaking point" is indelibly captured by Tenniel's illustration of The Mad Tea Party; for while Alice is hitherto drawn in somewhat awkward situations and posing, from the Tea Party onwards she appears to more comfortably hold her ground.

5 Berk notes that while children aged 4-6 can make social comparisons in relation to one peer, older children can compare multiple individuals, including themselves. Laura E. Berk, ed., Child Development, Canadian ed. (Toronto: Allyn & Bacon, 2003) 448.

Works Cited

Berk, Laura E., ed. Child Development. Canadian ed. Toronto: Allyn & Bacon, 2003.

Bettelheim, Bruno and Karen Zelan. On Learning to Read: The Child's Fascination with Meaning. 1981. New York: Vintage-Random, 1982.

Carpenter, Humphrey and Mari Prichard, eds. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. 1984. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.

Carroll, Lewis [Charles Dodgson]. Alice's Adventures Underground. 1985. London: Pavilion, 2000. N.pag.

---. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Ed. Roger Lancelyn Green. Illus. John Tenniel. 1865. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress. Chicago: J.A. Ruth, 1877.

Demers, Patricia and Gordon Moyles, eds. From Instruction to Delight: An Anthology of Children's Literature to 1850. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1982.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. 1854. London: Chapman &Hall, 1907.

Egoff, Sheila A. Worlds Within: Children's Fantasy from the Middle Ages to Today. Chicago: American Library Association, 1988.

Gardner, Martin. The Annotated Alice. 1960; New York: Meridian-New American, 1974.

Heath, Peter. The Philosopher's Alice. New York: St. Martin's, 1974.

Juster, Norton. The Phantom Tollbooth. Illus. Jules Feiffer. 1961. New York: Dell Yearling, 1996.

Lamb, Charles. Letter to Coleridge. 23 October 1802, quoted in Demers and Moyles 220.

Lear, Edward. A Book of Nonsense. 1846. London: Routledge, 1910.

Sendak, Maurice. "An Appreciation." Introduction. Juster n. pag.

Stone, RoseEtta. Interview with Norton Juster, Author of The Phantom Tollbooth. The Purple Crayon. 2001. 17 April 2004

Tolkien, J.R.R."On Fairy-Stories." The Tolkien Reader. 1966. New York: Ballantine, 1974. 3-84.

Tucker, Nicholas. "Good Friends or Just Acquaintances? The Relationship between Child Psychology and Children's Literature." Literature for Children: Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Peter Hunt. New York: Routledge, 1992. 156-73.


Maryn Brown

Volume 9, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2 January, 2005

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"Making Sense of Nonsense: An Examination of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth as Allegories of Children's Learning"
© Maryn Brown, 2005.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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