Saturday, January 06, 2018

For One Bright Summer Day: One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll: A Celebration of Wordplay and a Girl Named Alice by Kathleen Krull

Lewis Carroll was an expert on fun. A day with Lewis was always fabulous and joyous--as he would say, frabjous.

Young Lewis could make anyone grin. His ten brothers and sisters adored him. He led adventures, galumphing across the leafy, tulgey woods of the English countryside. They found rabbit holes to peer down and caterpillars to befriend.

Lewis Carroll grew up in the Victorian period, a time of stodgy manners and stilted language. The fun-loving boy also became, of all things, a mathematician whose fame rested on his tome on geometry, that science of down-to-earth concreteness. But in many ways Carroll remained like that other landmark English character, Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up. Lewis refused to forfeit his boyish humor and playfulness in his personal life. And on one memorable day in literature, he went on a rowboat expedition with a friend and three little girls, one of them named Alice, and Lewis spun out a frabjous fantasy tale that the world has never forgotten.

Kathleen Krull's just published One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll: A Celebration of Wordplay and a Girl Named Alice (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018). Carroll, whose actual and professional name was Charles Lutwidge Dodson, was a bit of a fish out of water in his own time, childless in a age of large families, a man who dealt in figures and forms whose joy was playing with words, telling fantastical tales that wove elements of of his time, from the Queen right down to the creatures of the fields and woods around him, into a piece of work that broke the mold of English children's literature, formerly mostly dedicated to teaching morals and precepts.

What Carroll gave literature in his Alice was a female protagonist who at once is a great adventuress, embracing both novelty and downright absurdity with a cool head, enabling the author to poke gentle but piercing satirical fun at the actual absurdities and peculiarities of his own social milieu and times. Charles Lutwidge Dodson was himself an edgy character, a bachelor who loved children, a long-nosed respectable professor whose delight was being a surrogate "uncle" to the children of his friends, a scientist who loved playful language, even freely coining words at will into terms that children and adults adored, words like slithy (slimy and lithe?) and uffish (huffy and rough?) and frumious (fuming and furious?) that at once make complete sense and nonsense in his storytelling. Indeed, many of Carroll's neologisms have become standards of the English language--words like wow, jabberwocky, un-birthday, snark, uglification, galumphing, and of course, chortle, which readers of Krull's new book are likely to do as they read this wondrous and utterly frabjous biography of that writer who got all of us ready to "believe six impossible things before breakfast."

Krull's retelling of the Carroll's life's work is heightened by the work of artist Julia Sarda, whose pages are filled with reeling and writhing images from Carroll's stories, things tulgey and beamish that gyre and gimble across the page, sometimes bordered by more staid images of the period, sometimes spreading over several pages of curiouser and curiouser creatures and frabjous events in ways that delight the eye. As Carroll would be wont to say, the text and illustrations are all much of a muchness for a delightful literary biography for middle readers.

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