One of our parents discovered that Juno Dawson’s book Wonderland is stocked in their child’s secondary school library. The rationale offered by the school for stocking such books was that the authors come from marginalised groups. Yet according to Wikipedia, Dawson is the author of 22 books; not the hallmark of marginalisation.

The school librarian recommends the book for Key Stage Four readers. Key Stage Four varies from school to school and covers the age range for GCSEs. However, both Waterstones and Amazon UK label this book as suitable for 12+.

Having some cursory knowledge of this book, we had our ex-English teacher reviewer read it so that you – and your kids – do not have to. Although Wonderland is billed by Waterstones as: “addressing issues of mental health, gender and privilege” this is a radically sanitised description, and we found the book to be every bit as inappropriate as our parent said – as affirmed by the good women of this Mumsnet thread.

Wonderland is billed as ‘dark,’ but it is time that we shed some light on it. The initial warning issues from the front cover: a neon bunny rabbit, reminiscent of the Playboy logo, hinting at the way readers’ senses will be abused.

Male sex fantasy tropes are present throughout. The book opens inside St Agnes, an all-girls’ boarding school where the girls presented are not only sexually active, but their bodies are described as ridden with STIs. We have a fair idea, then, what to expect, and none of it is wholesome. The repeated references to ‘sleepovers’ alluding to sexual happenings between teenage girls read as titillation material for depraved middle-aged men and the least useful portrayal of their sexuality for nascent teens.

But the school is not an all-girls’ school, for the protagonist, Alice, is a “transgender girl”, in other words a boy who identifies as a girl, albeit one that does not board.  This being the case, it is nauseating that another reductive stereotype of girls’ relationships, that of the ‘girly cat fight,’ is introduced. The first time we see Alice the Head is reprimanding him, for slapping a girl.  Portraying it as a little slap detracts from the sex-based reality of a boy hitting a girl.

The DfE’s guidance on the PSHE curriculum states that “teachers should not suggest to a child that their non-compliance with gender stereotypes means that either their personality or their body is wrong and in need of changing.” Ex-PSHE co-ordinator Dawson appears to have difficulty with this concept: Alice says: “I successfully fought off my gender,” claims he was “born with a faulty” body and repeats later ‘I was born … a boy. But never really was one.’

This objectification of children’s bodies should also raise a critical eyebrow. Alice says: “The fact I exist is enough. The fact I’m young is a bonus. I’m a blow-up doll.” Added to this Alice boasts about his “perky little boobs.” These views can only be cultivated in a porn saturated society, as can the circumstances around Alice’s disturbing confession that he, legally still a child, is having “an active, app-based sex life… with married men from outlying commuter towns,” facilitated by “hook-up culture”.

Wonderland progresses to Alice searching through his mother’s wardrobe for dresses and his discovery of her vibrator, leading him to speculate about the state of his parents’ sex life.

Not only is there hate-filled invective towards “fucking TERFS,” there is also a dose of porn-inspired delusion.  Neve, a biological girl with whom Alice has a final sexual encounter, tells Alice that she is a lesbian that “fucks girls.” Furthermore there is a smattering of the word ‘fascist.’ Clearly, Dawson believes children cannot be trusted to make up their own minds as they mature but must be drip-fed a diet of pre-digested bigotry.

Throughout Wonderland Alice never misses an opportunity to call out cultural appropriation – perhaps Dawson believes this will distract the reader from the fact that Alice is also appropriating something that is not his – femaleness. The biological basis of being female is dismissed, for Alice says “I could have said what’s not fair is that I’d never have a period, never have kids, or even a shot at giving birth because of some biological admin error. Some lazy angel…scribbled the wrong gender on my destiny forms.”

But worse than this offence are the reckless statements Dawson plants in Alice’s mouth about puberty blockers, for example has his protagonist state that hormone blockers prevented his body going “too far in the wrong direction.”

Alice captures the unfortunate spirit of the age perfectly when he states “…the operation…I’ve spoken to many a trans girl online who assure me my new vagina will both look and function like anyone’s…” Aside from the social media aspect of social contagion, this is a dangerously delusional claim: a human-constructed cavity is not a “vagina” and there are many health complications associated with vaginoplasty.

Alice’s character picks from the emotional-blackmail catalogue. He lauds the adults like his stepdad that have abandoned their duty to ground children’s identity in reality – calling him “an absolute fucking mensch,” whilst at the same time expressing upset (“You don’t forget shit like that when you’re trans”) at his mother’s difficulty at accepting that her son is really a girl. Dysphoric children do not need examples like this. Neither do they need to read about self-harm, yet Dawson persists in referring to this, presenting descriptions of “the shiny silver scars on my left forearm” and discussing the “urge to cut.”

Wonderland gets progressively worse. Remembering that this book is marketed as suitable for 12-year-olds at the lower end, and actively promoted in schools at KS4, any responsible parent should be appalled that the author, Hachette Children’s Group, school librarians and teachers believe that drug-fuelled sex is in any way appropriate. However this novel is replete with it, thus normalising the coupling of drugs and sex. Alice’s first sexual experience is accompanied by MDMA, rationalised as “the same stuff they put in anti-depressants.”

The link between sex and drugs is explicitly drawn and some would justifiably call the description pornographic. “She puts one on her tongue and kisses me again. I feel the pill pass into my mouth. ‘Just you wait …’ We kiss some more. We kiss and kiss until I feel a certain whoosh in my head and heart and throat. I grip her head and pull her into my mouth. That’s why they call it ecstasy. I get it now. She presses my hand against her and rubs up against it…She’s warm and wet against my skin. So, so warm. And when she moans in my ear, I know I’ve found her spot.”

However, at least this scene is consensual, which is more than can be said, in Alice’s words, for “the planned gang rape,” with Alice as the target. This scene is shocking for all kinds of reasons. For starters, unbeknown to Alice he has been given a date rape drug. His two attackers are twin brothers that claim they “like sharing girls” and that they “do it all the time.” Descriptions are explicit, describing how
“Firm hands grab at my breasts, pull on my nipples.
A hand slides up my thigh towards
I can’t.
I can’t let go.
‘Stop,’ I say between kisses.
‘Relax,’ one of them says.
‘You’re so hot,’ says the other.”

Alice manages to fend off his attackers.

While it can be appropriate to feature rape in books for teenagers, the writing style does not reflect the seriousness of the crime nor the trauma it causes; instead, it gives the impression of rape-as-porn-fantasy, and implies that if only Alice had been able to “relax” he would have enjoyed it.
Books that use phrases like “let them use your body and get fucked both ends like a little piggy,” and “You’re a fucking cum slut. Worthless tranny whore” should not be recommended to children, even if the narrator’s voice does finally decide he is worth more than to be used like this in such circumstances. It is insulting to children with gender dysphoria that adults think this reflects their lives; or that this heavily porn-influenced sexualised view has anything positive to offer.

These extracts are in chronological order with the last taken from page 141 of a 271-page book, and there is much else besides, but sex and drugs are salient features of Wonderland. There is an attempt to portray Alice as a moral crusader but frankly that is irrelevant – the entire cast of characters and their porn-addled mindset do not belong anywhere near 12-yr-olds or KS4 pupils.

2 thoughts on “‘Wonderland’ by Juno Dawson: a review

  1. I too am an English graduate and an ex-English teacher (Grammar School days!). I read this review with revulsion. How has our Education system, our language, our standards of what is good have descended into such depths is beyond me. Surely the librarians and the teachers of today are not all perverts. Are they so afraid of losing their jobs that they allow filth to be dished out to our children and young people in the name of education? I am in despair and fear for my grandson.

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