Release Interview: What Is the Story of Alice in Wonderland? by Dana Meachen Rau ’15

Gilbert Ford: Tell us about your book. Where did the inspiration for writing What is the Story of Alice in Wonderland come from? How did you get hooked up with the What is the Story series? And did you get it from networking or planting seeds with anyone? 

Dana Meachen Rau: This book wasn’t necessarily inspired by muse or memory. It was assigned to me by the editor of the Who Was? series, published by Penguin Workshop. I’ve written six books for the series already, and my editor thought I might be a good choice for their new subset: What is the Story Of? These biographies follow the “lives” of well-known, long-lived characters. Alice was a favorite of mine growing up, and while I probably didn’t actually read Alice in Wonderland in full until high school, I saw her reflected and referenced in so many facets of life. I jumped at the chance to write this book.

My work for the series started in 2013 due to lucky happenstance. The Who Was? editor called out of the blue, said she had been reading a book I had written a decade earlier (when looking for comp titles for one of her current projects), and thought my voice would be a good fit for the series. I love when seeds sowed long ago take hold in unexpected places. A book that had long gone out of print happened to pass by her when she happened to be looking for more writers to expand her series. I’m so grateful that the stars aligned that day!

GF: Were there any unexpected hiccups along the way?

DMR: Lewis Carroll had quite a storied past, which I hadn’t realized until I dove into my research. I wasn’t sure how to address it. But it all worked itself out in the drafting process as I clearly established my through line and focus—this book was a story of Alice’s “life,” not Carroll’s. He plays a part in her creation, but the majority of her existence has taken on a life of its own. The world knows her far beyond the pages of her book over the past 150 years.

GF: What was your favourite thing about working on this book?

DMR: I relish any chance to dive into the history of children’s literature, especially this transitional time when books went from being moral-based lessons to imaginative stories with the sole goal of entertainment. Also, I loved getting to know Alice—she’s a curious, fearless, and empowering role model for all young readers. Wonderland is a nonsensical world, like the world of adults is to children.  She affirmed that mystery and gave readers the permission to call out grownups on their nonsense.

GF: Tell us a little bit about your background before VCFA, and how you came to decide to enter our program.

DMR: I’ve been a working writer most of my adult life, primarily in the realm of early readers and school and library nonfiction. I was efficient, disciplined, and able to sustain a decent income. But time for creativity was difficult to fit into that schedule. I also wanted to pursue teaching at the college level, so a masters was in order. I had VCFA brochures tucked away in my “someday” dream file. VCFA was a gift to myself to slow down, focus on craft, see myself as an artist, and prepare myself to teach. VCFA far exceeded anything I could have possibly dreamed—a welcoming family who spoke my language, accepted me without judgment, and pushed me to grow.

GF: What year did you graduate from WCYA and what was your class name?

DMR: I was a Craftographer, graduating the summer of 2015, and what a fabulous bunch of crazy individuals we were, mapping our own paths through the writerly wilderness! Poetry off the Page started during our time there, as well as 50 Shades of VCFA. And I think it will go down as the one and only time in my life when I had an excuse to dress as a jellyfish.

GF: What would you say to potential students or current students who are hoping to further their writing careers?

DMR: One of the lessons I learned at VCFA was that the best way to further my writing career was to not think about my writing career. Leave publishing goals, industry trends, and marketing ideas at the door. Instead, enter completely open to follow your compulsion to create. I’ve always been a goal-oriented perfectionist. But VCFA taught me to play, dare, take chances, and make mistakes. All of my advisors encouraged me to write what scared me the most. It’s was so empowering to realize that I could do so much more than I thought I could. My best work came out of unplanned and even uncomfortable exercises.

GF: What’s forthcoming for you and your writing life?

DMR: I have another Who Was? book coming out in July—Who Was Juliette Gordon Low? (Answer: the founder of the Girl Scouts!). I’m currently in revisions for another What is the Story Of? title, which has offered me another fun romp through the history of children’s lit and explores another long-beloved strong female character.

I also have a few manuscripts out at interested publishers with fingers crossed. On a typical day, I’m sitting at my desk, playing with ideas, and hoping those seeds grow.

GF: What indie bookstore do you want WCYA to support in the purchase of your book?

DMR: One of the best bookstores in Connecticut is R.J. Julia in Madison. Also, there’s a fabulous store in North Conway, New Hampshire, White Birch Books, one of my favorite spots to browse. They sell amazing jigsaw puzzles, too!

GF: We are heeding the Brown Bookshelf’s call to action and raising up Black authors. In the vein of “if you like my book, you may also like this book,” what is the name of a book by a Black author that you recommend or are interested in supporting?

DMR: Since I’ve been working on so many biographies, I’ve been making a study of them. Lately I’ve been devouring picture book bios, and some of my favorites are by Lesa Cline Ransome and Don Tate. In both Cline-Ransome’s The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne and Tate’s Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, the authors on the important theme of the power of words to shift society’s sensibilities. I love books like these that show kids how important it is to use words to spread awareness and change.

WHAT IS THE STORY OF ALICE IN WONDERLAND? is published by Penguin, April 6, 2021.

Dana Meachen Rau has written more than 350 books for children in a variety of genres—early readers, picture-books, biographies, cookbooks, and nonfiction on scientific, historical, geographical, and other popular topics. Since graduating from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, with degrees in both creative writing and art history, she has worked in the publishing world as a writer, illustrator, and editor of both fiction and nonfiction. Since attending Vermont College of Fine Arts for her master’s degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults, she has taught at the Mark Twain House, the University of Hartford, and the Highlights Foundation.