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Book review: “Alice Through The Smartphone – How Safe Is The Internet Wonderland?”

Author Russell Jeanes was so kind as to send me a digital copy of his new tale “Alice Through The Smartphone”. I’ve written a review for anyone who may be interested in this book, which is mainly aimed at primary school teachers and parents who want to teach their smartphone-craving children how to use them responsible.

Cover of Alice Throug The Smartphone

“Alice Through The Smartphone” is Russell Jeanes’ second book. Earlier he (self-)published the book “Skyler And The Naturenet: An action-packed climate change story. For children to save the future”. Both books are aimed at children and strive to make them aware of the dangers of smartphones and climate change respectively.

Jeanes’ latest book is, according to himself, a ‘reimagining’ of Carroll’s ‘Alice’ stories. By basing his story on Carroll’s, he hopes to educate primary school students who want a smartphone on how to avoid their dangers, as well as how to behave appropriately when using them, in an appealing way.

His story repeats some scenes from the original books (some almost verbatim, others more in terms of setting), but makes them internet themed. The story starts with Alice sitting next to her sister on the bank and looking over her shoulder to see what she is doing on her smartphone. Then she sees a talking white rabbit running past and looking at a screen. She runs after him and sees him drop his phone (consistently called ‘screen’ in the story). As soon as she tries to look at his phone, she falls down a kind of digital rabbit hole (symbolic of the way social media can consume you and your time) and ends up in a Wonderland (or Wonder-Glass, as it is also called – the text is quite vague about this). After that, the scenes deviate a bit more from the original. Alice searches for the rabbit to return the phone and then ends up in the Queen’s games (such as ‘Candy Bush Push’ – a reference to Candy Crush Saga), which she tries to win.

Some Wonderland and Looking-Glass characters return in the story, sometimes in a modified form. In addition to Alice herself and the aforementioned White Rabbit, we have for example a Dormouse and a Walrus, but also a ‘Clock Turtle’ and ‘Cheshire Catfish’. In addition, there are completely new characters that refer to smartphone use, such as ‘SILI’ (a reference to Apple’s Siri) and a library full of ‘Face Books’: books with a face on the front and back cover, which only want to be friends with you if you are pretty and trendy.

During the story, Alice finds herself in various situations that point to difficult aspects that children encounter when using smartphones, although not all of them are clearly recognizable. Examples include seeing ‘deep fakes’ and the fact that search engines store your search history and can reuse this information for other purposes.

The story is illustrated. The book’s cover features a beautiful, attractive color illustration created by Lia Visirin. The text is enhanced by some images adapted from those of Tenniel, usually supplemented with stylized quotes from the book. There are also images that consist solely of quotes in combination with decorative images that do not come from Tenniel. Jeanes apparently made these himself and in my opinion he succeeded well, because they look as if they were created by a professional designer.

Illustration about 'digging'The creative design is further reflected in the table of contents: it looks like it is a list of apps on a smartphone! A nice find, and I would have liked to see this theme reflected elsewhere in the book’s layout as well.

The book consists of 20 chapters, of which only 18 are actually for the story. Chapter 19 is a short list with concrete advice for using the internet safely and in a kind way, chapter 20 contains quiz questions. In total the book is only 94 pages, so it’s easy to finish in one evening.

The book starts with a disclaimer: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s (and Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel’s) imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.” Which is actually rather a shame for a book based on Carroll’s – I would expect these kinds of references in it! Despite this disclaimer, there appear to be some references to persons and situations in the story anyway. For example, the name Charles Babbage (the designer of the predecessor of our computer) appears and there is a hint at ‘digging in Wales’, which could refer to excavation work in the town of Wales in Yorkshire (the region where the author comes from) – but perhaps I’m trying to read too much into it.

Of course (fortunately) there are also puns and poems in Jeanes’ story. Some I think are successful, such as when Alice asks SILI: “Do you have a map?” and it replies: “Only bitmaps”. Or the somewhat critical reference to Spotify: “Some Spotty Flies started up singing, but only small snatches of songs, they didn’t let songs ever finish, and none of them sang very long”. A more Carrollian find by Jeanes is to have the flowers Alice meets think she’s weird because she never learned to eat the sun. Unfortunately, there are hardly any jokes of the latter kind, and there are also jokes that I find a bit less successful.

Poems always prove to be the most difficult in Alice-inspired stories. Jeanes tries his best, but several lines of poetry do not have the right cadence and many words just don’t rhyme. His poems and songs are clearly based on those of Carroll: either only in terms of meter, or there is a clear connection with an original poem, or it is a reference to an existing English nursery rhyme/song such as ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ and ‘Row, row, row your boat’. Although not entirely successful, the attempt to incorporate this into the story is commendable.

Rhyming is not only reflected in the poems, but also in the text: various conversational lines in the story rhyme with each other, which gives a nice effect. Such as:
“The Catfish looked down with a huge pair of eyes that were spinning kaleidoscope blue.
‘If you think you can trust me to ask you! Tell me who in this strange world are you?’
‘I’m Alice and this is my Growbot!’ said Alice.’ And we’re trying to find the next clue!’”
Although having had to search for rhyming words sometimes makes the sentences seem a bit strange.

Unfortunately, apparently no proofreader looked at the story before publication. They might have been able to make the slightly rambling plot better. The story sometimes seems to skip some parts, causing the reader to be surprised for example that in one chapter they are still in a forest, while the next chapter starts with the opening of ‘the door’ to a library. (Which door, where does it come from?) Or that a Walrus suddenly speaks, while it had not previously been made clear that a Walrus was also present in the scene. Furthermore, it is unclear what Alice is actually trying to achieve, making it an even more incoherent story than Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. At first she wants to give the smartphone back to the rabbit, but early in the book she switches to playing the Queen’s games. Which games these are, how she gets from one to the other and to what extent she is successful in them remains unclear. Although you can of course also argue that this reflects on what social media does to you: you get sucked in, forget what your original goal was and are lured from one activity to another.

What I really think is a shame are the punctuation errors. Commas are missing or in the wrong place, capital letters are missing, there are question marks instead of exclamation marks or full stops (and vice versa), it is not always clear where a sentence spoken by a character ends, etc. As a result, I had to read some sentences two or three times before I understood them. And even then I still didn’t understand some of the phrasings.

The quiz questions at the back of the book are a good idea. After all, the purpose of the book is to discuss the subject with children, and the book is mainly aimed at primary school teachers, who can read the book with their students in class and can discuss the themes in the story either while reading it or afterwards. There are a lot of questions though, and I think the questions could have been more focused, so that fewer were needed. Not every question seemed to contribute to a good conversation about safe smartphone use. The quiz questions are all multiple-choice and range from definition questions to fictional ‘how would you react if’ situations and the topics cover both smartphone-related questions and, for example, why the Hatter was crazy. Moreover, the answers for the situational questions seem a bit pedantic to me.
Personally, I would have opted for only two types of questions: first ask a few questions per chapter about what references to internet use the reader has recognized in it and what the author wants to say with it (in case the teacher has not already discussed this while reading the chapters). And then outline some difficult situations that children can find themselves in, with the open question of how they would react to them. That way, they may better stimulate discussion and thinking for yourself.

Illustration about 'deep fake cake'Now, I am not a mother myself, so it is difficult for me to estimate how this story comes across to children. Do they like it because they recognize the ‘Alice’ stories in it? Or are they (also) disappointed because there is such a clear lesson in it? After all, a key feature of Carroll’s ‘Alice’ books, and partly the reason for their success at the time, is that there was no moral in them. I imagine that children would be a little more open to the story’s message if it had less of a “Smartphones are bad, m’kay” tone.

As someone who was born in 1979, I may have a somewhat more nuanced view of smartphones than most people. I grew up in the transition period between the analogue and digital era, which meant I learned to function both with and without computers, the internet and mobile phones. I think it is a shame that the older generation often equates smartphones with social media, while the device is of course suitable for many more purposes. I would certainly not discourage or warn against smartphone use in general, because the device also offers me, among other things, a harmless agenda, notepad, alarm clock, navigation system, camera, weather forecast, means of payment, and telephone. (One would almost forget you can also make old-fashioned calls with it!) The ‘danger’ lies in some specific apps, such as social media apps and the browser that leads to the internet, where you can encounter all kinds of things, both desired and unwanted. And of course that danger is just as present if you use the internet via other devices, such as a laptop or desktop computer.

Furthermore, I think the maximum amount of ‘screen time’ that a child is allowed to undergo is not the best measure for safe use. The author himself already indicates that screen time due to homework does not count. But if the advice is to turn off your smartphone and go read a book, you can do that via a screen as well, right? The book we are talking about here can be purchased as an e-book – does reading it count as screen time or not? I think it is relevant to separate the different types of dangers and discuss them individually, to enhance children’s understanding of them. After all, the danger of too much blue light before going to sleep is of a completely different type than online bullying behavior, which is completely different from companies that store your personal information and use algorithms. And all these types of hazards require a different approach or prevention method. This is not clearly addressed in the book, in which all perils are simply linked to ‘the screen’.

But regardless of what you think of the story and the accompanying quiz questions, the book certainly stimulates thought and discussion about the subject, as already becomes clear from my review. In that respect, Jeanes has most certainly succeeded in his aim: offering a playful way as a teacher or parent to start a conversation with their children about smartphone use!


“Alice Through the Smartphone” is available as paperback and Kindle e-book via Amazon:

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