I spent Saturday in the company of a bunch of Carrollians at the fall meeting of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America. Wait! Don’t go yet! Before you decide you have no interest in them, let me tell you that this meeting had speakers that might even interest those with no affinity for Alice and her friends.
First up was Jon Scieszcka, our most honorable ambassador of children’s literature. I’ve long felt Jon has a Carrollian sense of humor, best manifested in the clever parodies in Science Verse and since his retelling of the Disney Alice (in a picture book for the very young with terrific artwork by the movie’s conceptual artist, Mary Blair) is just out he was game. Jon spoke about some of the challenges he experienced doing the retelling, his strong feelings about children and their need for humor, and various amusing anecdotes related to his ambassadorial duties. (He willingly did a photo op wearing his new medal.)
After lunch we heard from the remarkable Nancy Willard, author of the Newbery-award winner, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn. (I must admit that I feel our choice of last year, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, is in the tradition of Willard’s book, being equally unconventional, and was delighted when Nancy told me how much she liked Laura’s book and how she had it on reserve for her students at Vassar. Hope you read this, Laura!)
Nancy spoke about two kinds of teachers: the visible and the invisible. And then she spoke of how Carroll was her invisible teacher and how she learned about writing unconsciously from her many readings of the Alice books. She described her vivid memory of reading the book when she was eight (and I too remember having the book read to me by my father when I was that age). She then went on to show us the power of dialog, the way Carroll brilliantly used it to tell the story. She felt then and now as if a real person was speaking to her and reminded us through excerpts of that ironic and witty voice. The voice of the storyteller which Carroll was. There are so many wonderful asides to the reader throughout the book; often these tell us more about Alice than she can herself. (Say when he describes her boxing her own ears or talking to herself.)
Nancy marveled at the way Carroll uses conversation as a storytelling device. She also referenced the etiquette books of the period she also had read when age eight and how they emphasized the importance of being able to converse well. This explains Alice’s constant efforts to engage the other characters in sensible conversations and her frustration when they can’t or are rude. Carroll also turns conversation into a game and repeatedly reminds us of the power of play, especially word play. A remarkable talk that needs to be published — most likely will be in the society’s journal, The Knight Letter, but perhaps it can then be reprinted elsewhere. Roger Sutton, are you listening?
We then heard an intriguing talk by the composer Peter Westergaard on his Alice opera. I was very impressed by how Peter used Carrollian structures and motifs as he composed the music for this opera. He gave us several excerpts, a complete libretto, and showed us an extended clip from the Tea Party scene. Fascinating stuff!
Our final speaker was Mahendra Singh, an illustrator, graphic designer, and art director who is doing a remarkable graphic novel version of The Hunting of the Snark. The presentation was tremendously interesting. Mahendra is taking a Surrealist slant to his interpretation of this poem and fills each of his panel with literary and artistic references galore. Rather than telling you about them I suggest you go see them for yourself. Mahendra is putting the panels on a blog as he does them here. You can also download it here.
An excellent day. I mark it with a white stone.