The Most Technologically Advanced Book for the iPad?

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.

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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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