How to craft a sense of wonder: Lessons from Lewis Carroll

Hello writers, and welcome to episode 9 in The Reading Room podcast, where we explore the delightful story of Alice In Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll; originally crafted for children, but has been enjoyed by all ages throughout the years.
I couldn’t launch a podcast without covering an episode for children. Having grown up with Alice, I’ve enjoyed the novel, the TV and film adaptations, plus a school play and panto, and a themed fancy-dress party in its honour (in my 20’s no less!). It’s all so oddly wonderful, topsy turvy, and fun with its talking rabbits, disappearing cats, and a queen hosting an obsession with white roses and red paint.
Now, with 60 literary retellings, 40 films, and 30 stage and television adaptations, the story evidently goes much deeper than the themes of absurdity and identity that are recognised on the surface reading level (for which many, many critical theorists and storytellers have analysed and adapted over the years), and that is part of the fascination with this story of Alice. For today’s episode, however, we’ll be exploring how the sense of wonder and the unusual is created in chapter one, and how this is distilled from a child’s perspective.
Should you be interested to explore this story in more depth in a writing workshop or as a writing resource, just let me know.
As you listen to the reading, I’d like you to think about how chapter 1 presents Alice’s thoughts and feelings on her adventure down the rabbit hole through her inner monologues.
Are you ready? Then, let’s begin…
Close Reading
Oh, she ate the whole cake without pausing and we know what happens next! I have to say, as I’m not a natural voice actor, this was a difficult chapter to prepare for and read aloud. The chapter is filled with commas and semi-colons, particularly when Alice talks aloud. As you’re reading, you find yourself following both the pace and direction of Alice’s thoughts. Sometimes her thoughts are measured and practical as a child learning her lessons and sometimes they are a steady stream of a child’s ideas and possibilities.
The chapter opens with the third-person narrative and Alice’s inner monologues and questions are charged with a child’s curiosity which infuses the narrative. Before going down the rabbit hole, Alice’s thoughts are confined to herself in the company of her sister. Once she transitions over, she voices her thoughts aloud, almost confidently and unchecked. Note how she is mindful of there being no opportunity to show off her knowledge to anyone, but exercising her knowledge is a practical step in her learning process. She is equally happy no one can hear when she is unsure of an answer and this illustrates her youthful self-consciousness. ‘What an ignorant little girl [someone would] think me of [her] for asking!’ Alice also likes the words Latitude and Longitude as they are ‘nice, grand words to say.’ because they are words grown-ups use and she wants to impress them.
There are several references to ‘little’ throughout this chapter: ‘ignorant little girl’, and ‘little key’, or ‘tiny’ key, and the ‘little three-legged table’ and so on. These references to size are indicative of how small she is. As she fluctuates between little and large, tall and short from the drink and cake, the language shifts accordingly and it’s a method to instill an image of a small child in the reader. In chapter 2, her size will have changed from the cake.
Let’s take a step back and look at Alice’s first glimpse of the White Rabbit. It comes just after the sentence that ‘the hot day made [Alice] feel very sleepy and stupid,’ and she is slow to act and pick daisies. Here is the first hint that she is falling asleep. As the rabbit runs by her, Alice is again slow to register that he is speaking, almost sluggish in response. As Alice travels down the well, she is moving slowly, calmly, and not in a rushed panicked state as if she were falling down any stairs; she is travelling to Wonderland in a dreamlike state, yet her practical, well-mannered self is present along the way.
There are books on shelves as Alice travels down the well, maps and pictures too. These are symbols of knowledge and represent Alice’s curiosity and education – both for what she has learned in lessons and the deductions she makes on her own. Similarly, once she arrives at the long low hall with its locked doors, she is saddened that they are closed to her. And yet, all that Alice requires on her new adventure is presented to her. A dash of wonder with the sudden appearance of the little table, followed by its enticing bottle labelled ‘DRINK ME’ and its mysterious qualities trigger the next stage of Alice’s journey, and the path she is permitted to take. We then await the next chapter as she finishes off the cake marked ‘EAT ME’ to continue the journey. I love the flavours Alice identifies from the bottle – each a childhood favourite and each a delight both adults and children alike can appreciate.
As Alice scolds herself out of her cry, treatment that she would have likely experienced from an adult or observed of other children (much like boxing her own ears!), she is willing herself to stop the nonsense and carry on. The story then continues with a sudden surprise out of her predicament with the arrival of the small cake.
Structurally the story is delivered as a dream and is therefore uninhibited by the constraints of reality and this is what we love about it! By delivering the story in this way, Carroll disables the restrictions of Victorian rules presented in children’s literature to turn them upside down. Through Alice’s eyes, we are presented with this wonderful childlike resilience and motivation to indulge in curiosities and see where the path takes you.
What did you notice about the writing style in this passage to indicate the childlike wonder of the story? Let me know your thoughts either with an episode review or a message to You can also send me a direct message to my social media profile @awriterslighthouse.
Today’s Exercise
And so, we have our exercise for the day. I’d like you to brainstorm a list of story ideas for children. Set yourself 10 minutes on a timer whilst the kettle brews or between the washing machine rounds and get those ideas down onto paper. Then, select one story from your list and spend another 10 minutes writing out what might happen. Keep resetting that timer until you feel you need a break and then review your work.
Try not to overthink or limit yourself in this exercise, it’s an opportunity to shake things up and see what narrative paths form on the page!
If you need help with developing your story idea, you can download my free Story Mapping Guide at my website, and proceed from Step 2.
Until next time, happy listening, reading, and writing with your #eyestothehorizon

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