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As Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Turns 150: Being Alice by Rosa Lyster

By Rosa Lyster for the Sunday Times

Alice's Adventures in WonderlandThrough the Looking-GlassWhen I was four, I changed preschools. This was at my own insistence. I was bored, I told my parents, of the old preschool. Same old friends, same dressing-up clothes, same slightly defective musical instruments. Same story-time, same slide, same boiled egg for lunch. I needed a change.

My parents are saintly and wonderful people, and so they agreed. I would start at the beginning of the year. This is going to be great, I thought. New preschool, new pals, a new world of glamour and intrigue. It was only on my first day that I saw how it was actually going to play out. I was right – everything was new. That was the problem. All these new people with their all own games, and their own ways of doing things. None of them wanted to be my friend. I’ve made a terrible mistake, I thought.

And then I was rescued by Alice. Alice was an interesting girl. We had a lot in common – both small, both hopeful that something interesting would happen, both inclined to dash after anything new. Both of us, too, could be show-offs. But Alice was superior to me in all the important ways. She was very brave. She did her best to make friends. She had a terrific imagination. She was good at talking to grown-ups. I was especially impressed by her grit – Alice did not make a fuss. When thrown into an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation – like, for example, going to a new school – she kept her wits about her.

Her only defect was that she wasn’t only my Alice. Everyone knew her, everyone loved and admired her. Also, if we are splitting hairs, the other difficulty with Alice was that she wasn’t real. She came out of a book that our teacher started reading to us in the second week of school.

Before Alice, I was too shy to talk to anyone at playtime. After Alice, I didn’t need to, because I was too busy playing a game of my own invention. The game was called Being Alice. It was very easy. All you had to do was pretend that you were Alice, and that you were in Wonderland. Nothing actually happened in the game. You just walked around and thought, How would Alice feel? What would Alice do? You pretended your ordinary cat was the Cheshire Cat. You pretended the class hamster was the dormouse. The sweet teacher could stand in for the Red Queen, at a push. If you were feeling ambitious, you could assemble some Lego and plastic trees, and pretend you were Alice in the bit where she eats the cake and gets too big. It was easy to imagine being Alice in the bit where she gets too small, because you were very small to begin with. Being Alice took up great tracts of my day, and saved me from feeling shy, and having no friends.

As an adult, there are only a few times a year that it seems necessary to Be Alice: when faced with an erratic authority figure, when having an identity crisis, when placed in a situation for which there are no clear instructions on how to behave. To quote her, “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then”, but I can revisit past lessons. How would Alice feel? What would Alice do? Alice would stay calm, remain polite, and try to figure out the best way to proceed. Hers are rules to live by.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland turned 150 this year, which seems extraordinary. 150 is very old, and Alice is so young. More than that, Alice is timeless. She is a role model and an adventurer. She has bailed me out of many a crisis, and I am very grateful.

Rosa Lyster is a writer and poet living in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow her on Twitter @rosalyster.

The Sunday Times is giving away three paperback sets of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to celebrate the 150 year anniversary of the Lewis Carroll classic. To enter, join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #STBooks and tweet what you’re currently reading. Competition closes on Friday, 17 July. The winner will be announced on Twitter in a random draw on 20 July. Sunday Times Ts & Cs apply.

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