The Most Technologically Advanced Book for the iPad?

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The "Alice in New York" app transports Alice from Wonderland to New York City—and fuses classic illustrations with complex physics

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Chris Stevens was a professional writer at The Telegraph (U.K.) and also The Times in London. He also has a background in art direction—his first job was designing game show formats for the BBC. For the 140th anniversary of Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking Glass (1871), he wanted to do something special, so he spent the past six months working with an illustrator to adapt Sir John Tenniel's original drawings from the book so that Alice explores New York City.

All the illustrations are based on Tenniel's woodblock prints, but—and here's what's unique—they are interactive, presented to users in an iPad app called Alice in New York. The "book," which has more than 130 "pages," uses water simulations, particle physics, regular physics, light effects, and sound. (Previously, Stevens made Alice for the iPad, an interactive adaptation of the classic book, which, he claims, is on over half a million iPads and was shown off on Oprah.)

Stevens hired illustrator Petra Kneile because her style was so much in the spirit of Tenniel. However, it took a fair bit of work to get close to Tenniel's original line. Not only were his original drawings black and white, but Tenniel had a very confident, casual stroke to his pen that is difficult to emulate. Stevens adapted the text and also wrote and performed the piano score that is featured in Alice in New York.

I wanted to see whether or not this iteration of Carroll's work was a carbon copy or a uniquely new experience. A conversation with Stevens ensued.

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I did a book a couple of decades ago with Marshall Efron and Alfa Betty Olsen, illustrated by Steven Guarnaccia, called Sin City Fables. The cover was Alice going down the subway hole. It made sense at the time. Why is Alice set in 1930s New York in your project?

Sin City Fables looks intriguing, I'll have to hunt out a copy. The reference materials we used for the project were photos of the city from around the 1920s and '30s. I now have a wall here plastered with old photographs of Manhattan. But we weren't religious about representing any particular era, and the New York that Alice explores in the book is more of a dreamy amalgam of a timeless New York.

The reason I picked New York is that (aside from my love of the city) I was looking out across the island from the Empire State Building observation deck last summer, and had a sudden epiphany that Manhattan could be retrofitted onto the original Lewis Carroll book with supernatural accuracy. The chessboard world in Through the Looking Glass found an exact equivalent in the grid-system of the New York City streets. The Red Queen became the Statue of Liberty with very few changes to her character, and locations like Central Park and the subway system matched other key scenes. It was almost like Lewis Carroll had planned it that way.

Tenniel's drawings have been parodied and copied a lot. What makes your Alice in New York unique?

I think the unique part of this book comes from two things: First, the drawings in Alice in New York can be physically moved. Effectively, this is the first time that readers can directly manipulate Tenniel's art from Through the Looking Glass.

Second thing is that, as far as my research has taken me, nobody has ever attempted to take the entire contents of a Wonderland book and transport it entirely to a new location using Tenniel's art—let alone transport it to New York City, far from the Oxford countryside where Carroll wrote the book. Perhaps nobody has dared be so reckless with a classic text. But then Steve Jobs is famous for saying "Good artists borrow. Great artists steal." Although he was quoting Picasso.

It could be because I am from another generation (or planet), but why should people want this iPad application?

Hopefully because, of the current crop on the iPad bookstore, it's the most technically interactive book—it uses particle physics, water simulation, and very advanced modeling of general physics. I worked with the guys who invented this physics simulation stuff, Howling Moon.

From a cultural standpoint, I hope it's an interesting mash-up of classic literature, combined with an iconic world city. It could mean that a new generation will engage with a book that is largely unknown to them. Carroll is overdue a substantial new audience, and I don't think he's being well served by some of the more recent adaptations of his work in Hollywood. Of course Alice in New York is quite a substantial adaptation of the original book, but it does stay extremely faithful to the original dialogue and intention of many key scenes.

Given that Carroll was a controversial figure in terms of his interest in children, how do you avoid innuendo and double entendre?

Carroll is an unknown quantity, and different historians have wildly different opinions on how to interpret his life. Some academics have challenged the controversies, others reinforced them. From the reader's perspective I think it essentially boils down to this: the human mind is infinitely inventive, and allegories could be insinuated in many great works, regardless of the author's intentions. I didn't find myself writing around Carroll, and I think the source text could be read with no awareness of any controversy—I think Disney and others rely on this being the case.

What's next in your iPad-app literary life?

Interesting question! I'd like to concentrate on an educational book next. I think the publishing world is only just beginning to explore what the iPad could do for kids with learning difficulties—this might sound like a Miss World kind of answer, but I did work in schools for a year teaching kids who I think would greatly benefit from using more tactile teaching materials with a fiction narrative that respects and challenges them. There's lots of intriguing things you can do with an iPad that you can't do with paper and ink.

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Images: Courtesy of Steven Heller

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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