Alice in Wonderland has ever remained a staple in the young adult fiction landscape, and I’m not just talking about the original. Since Lewis Carrol first took readers down the rabbit hole in 1865, authors have continually attempted their own spin on the storied Wonderland, whether they be dark, comedic, or even more fantastical versions.
But why? Why do young adult authors and filmmakers alike return always to the world of Wonderland? What is it about Alice that stands the test of time? Maybe that’s it exactly: time. Time marches on, with or without our consent. Like Alice is always thrust from Wonderland at the end of her stories, so are we thrust from childhood, ready or not. Innocence is a most rare virtue because it can’t be bottled up and preserved. Our speeding world aches for it and there is so little to be found.
Enter, Alice. A girl frozen in time, perpetually lost, confused and in desperate need of guidance. Isn’t this how we all really feel inside, though we try to appear otherwise? Alice’s encounters with riddling insects and smiling felines represent our own interactions with the unpredictable, unreliable world around us. How many of us have learned the hard way that when two squabbling idiots give you conflicting directions, you don’t listen to either one? And what is our reaction when we listen to a mysterious little bottle that says, “Drink Me”? The same as Alice: it seemed like a promising idea at the time.
We love Alice because we are Alice. She validates the parts of us that ever remain frightened children trying to find our way home.
Which is why we never stop telling her story. In just the last two decades alone, we can see a plethora of Alice in Wonderland retellings in the young adult genre. And there are always more on the horizon (hint, hint). Let us explore 5 of the best modern retellings out there and discuss exactly what makes them unforgettable.
First, we have an instantly recognizable name (although, I am biased on this front). Marissa Meyer, author of The Lunar Chronicles saga, a scientific retelling of various classic fairy tales including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White, also authored a standalone novel titled Heartless, a humanizing backstory to the Queen of Hearts, tyrant of Wonderland.
Heartless is a perfect example of the deliciously romantic and darkly twisted retelling at which Meyer excels. This 2016 novel is perfect for lovers of a villain-turned-hero, and a classic forbidden love story. Catherine, our one-day ruler of all Wonderland, is now only a potential suitor for the King of Hearts, even though her own heart belongs to another. Jest, the loveable and mysterious court jester, draws her away from all she was destined to be, and into a story of true love. This star-crossed tale will remind readers that before she was Alice’s adversary, the Queen of Hearts was just a girl fighting to live life, and find love, on her own terms.
Attention lovers of all things steampunk! New York Times best-selling author Melanie Karsak’s Curiouser and Curiouser sets Alice’s story in a dark, gadget-filled 19th century London. This exciting 2017 read takes us on a mad dash to save the Hatter from London’s criminal underworld, as Alice works together with Caterpillar, the man she once loved… and now only wants to avoid. This story is a perfect joining of the old and the new, chock full of references to Lewis Carrol’s original tale “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland”, while blending modern elements with its steampunk aesthetic. Alice has never seen a more modern revival.
If you loved Curiouser and Curiouser, and you’re dying for more, or if you need extra incentive to start, there is more to the saga. Curiouser and Curiouser is only part one in a four-book series of steampunk fairy tale retellings by Karsak. The series follows the stories of the Snow Queen in Ice and Embers, Isabelle Hawking (or Belle) in Beauty and Beastly, and Rapunzel in Golden Braids and Dragon Blades. Check out this series for more edgy, steampunk classics!
Speaking of edgy, we can’t list great Alice in Wonderland retellings without talking about The Looking Glass Wars, our very own Frank Beddor’s twisty 2004 trilogy. Lewis Carrol has it wrong, and only we know the truth. The classic story is but a mangled jigsaw of names and places plucked from Alyss’ shaky memory. The real story is that of a stolen throne, a diabolical queen, and our heroine’s rise to power.
Good and evil are at war for the heart of Wonderland, and Alyss is caught in the middle when her evil Aunt Redd overthrows the suited hierarchy to assume power. The young princess, Alyss, is forced to escape to the “real world” with Hatter Madigan, where her memories of Wonderland fail her. Years later, her friends find a way to call her back. She is all grown up now, and Wonderland needs her more than ever.
This action-packed adventure is not for the faint of heart, nor for the weekend reader. Alyss and her merry band of righteous rogues will draw you in from the beginning, and setting down this series will be nearly impossible. For those long-time fans of the trilogy, Frank Beddor has more recently continued his saga with a spinoff series titled Hatter M., and is ever expanding his Wonderland universe, potentially moving his story to the big screen!
If you’re a fan of this page-turning, battle-like feel, you’ll love Ashley McLeo’s 2020 duology, The Wonderland Court. Beginning in Alice the Dagger, our heroine is a spurned princess and an unlikely, but deadly, assassin. As far as she knows, she was born to be a killer, but when a certain white rabbit calls Alice to the Wonderland Court of Faerie, she learns that she is the true and rightful heir to the throne, and the reigning queen is a usurper and a murderer.
Working with the beloved Henri Hatter, a rebel leader who threatens to steal Alice’s heart with his bard-like charms, to assassinate the Red Queen and assume the throne will be the hardest job Alice the Dagger has ever pulled. Find out how this story ends in McLeo’s sequel, Alice the Torch, complete with heartbreaking family ties and a reluctant love triangle. This time, Alice is called on to fight the Wonderland powers-that-be for more than just herself, but for those she loves.
(If Ashley were to drop in on our All Things Alice podcast to talk with us about her books, maybe we can convince her to add a third installment to the series!)
Our final exploration into young adult Alice retellings comes with L. L. McKinney’s A Blade So Black, the first book of three in The Nightmare-Verse saga. Alice is a typical teenager living in modern-day Atlanta, Georgia. Her world is rather unremarkable, consisting of school… and not much else. Until she falls asleep. In this version, Wonderland is a place that exists somewhere in the realm between asleep and awake, and only Alice knows how to get there. On this particular night, Alice must dive deep into Wonderland’s underworld to save her mentor from a mysterious enemy, without getting her own head chopped off in the process.
The series’ debut in 2018 was met with widespread and enthusiastic praise. Angie Thomas, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of The Hate U Give, told readers that A Blade So Black was “the fantasy book [she’s] been waiting for [her] whole life. Alice is Black Girl Magic personified.” This read will appeal to the adventure-hungry teenage girl in all of us.
The thrilling conclusion to this trilogy is set to be released on September 19, 2023. We’d love to have L. L. McKinney visit us at All Things Alice to promote her upcoming release!
We have only begun to skim the surface of the many young adult Alice retellings out there today; this list is only a fraction. With a world so rich in lore and quirky characters, you can’t help but wonder, what if there was always more to the story? Readers have asked, and these authors have answered, returning us to this wonderful land of nonsense where we can remember what it’s like to be young, lost, and curious.
Marissa Armstrong is a Los Angeles native and currently a student at Arizona State University, where she majors in Film and English. Her brand of dark comedy stems from an appreciation of both the light and the dark in humanity. It is her purpose to use her storytelling wiles to celebrate all things tragically hilarious. Or hilariously tragic.