Author Archives: Julia Schmidt

About Julia Schmidt

Writer, mom of four, homeschooler, adventure-seeker.

The Faces of Death… and a Book Thief

Once again my students have amazed me with their creativity – in class the other day I mentioned that it would be interesting to see a drawing of Death, as personified in the book we are studying, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Someone asked if I would give extra credit points for a drawing, I consented, and I now have a lovely stack of drawings of Death.

Which is not something I thought I would ever say.

Book Thief Death Wightman

Preppy Death by Sandis Wightman

Book Thief Death Shank

Death-Mask Death By Jedidiah Shank



Book Thief Death Reilly

Plane Crash Death by Daniel Reilly


Book Thief Death Schmidt

Death & Leisel by Erin Schmidt

Book Thief Death Caparelli

Pocket Protector Death by Michael Capparelli

Book Thief Death Wilderman

Death Crashes a funeral by Shay Wilderman

Book Thief Death Sato

Conflicted Death by Darynne Sato

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Haiku – Lost in Translation

We had so much fun with our last Haiku assignment that I assigned some extra-extra credit.  I challenged the students to find Arakida Moritake’s “Fallen Flower” haiku in Japanese and feed it into Google Translate.

Three students took me up on it and I received three completely different translations:

The Original (from our textbook, Abeka’s World Literature)

The falling flower
I saw drift back to the branch
Was a butterfly

Some of us found a different translation of that online, and we agreed it was the better of the two:

Translation by Steven D. Carter:

A fallen blossom
returning to the bough, I thought —
But no, a butterfly.

Carter, Steven D. Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Stanford University Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0804722124 p338

And here are the translations my students did with the help of Google Translate:

Translation by Sandis Wightman:

I went back to the branch and saw the drift
It was a butterfly

Translation by Darynne Sato:

If you look to the fallen branches and you see it.

Translation by Michael Capparelli:

Lukha.z When you return to the moon butterfly and clothes fallen flower branches, the moon is unprepared.

And this, students, is why it’s so important, when reading literature that originated in another language, to find a reputable translation.

Or you could learn the language.  That would work, too.  😆

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Renga – The Ancestor of Haiku

Since September, my World Literature class has been working its way through the ages of literature, starting at around 3000 BC with The Epic of Gilgamesh.  It is now December and we find ourselves reading the poetry of 16th and 17th century Japanese poets Moritake and Matsuo Basho.

Since we research every author we read, we have discovered that the Haiku form of poetry is actually a shortened version of the Renga form.

Renga is a cooperative form of poetry writing – one person writes a stanza of 3 lines with syllable counts of 5, 7 and 5, and then a different poet replies with a 2-line stanza of 7 and 7 syllables.  Historically, this would then be repeated, sometimes reaching hundreds of lines in length.

As homework, I assigned my class the task of writing a haiku.  When I was grading them, it suddenly hit me that I should be responding in renga form.

I was so delighted with the results that I just had to share them here:

by Erin Schmidt

Buzzing mosquito
Have you met my two hands?
Death can be sudden

My final meal; suddenly
Hands appear.  Ah, life was sweet.

Southern California Fires of December, 2017
by Michael Capparelli

The snowflake descends
Inhaled, it infects my lungs
Not snow, it is ash

L.A. fires burn but this is
Not what’s meant by “White Christmas”


The Test
by Erin Schmidt

Tears stream down their face
A test they have not studied for
Still they hope they’ll pass

Teacher smiles, vindicated
They should have listened in class!

Winter Time In California
by Darynne Sato

Songs of snow falling
I look out of the window
The sun is shining

Woes of Californians
Never get Snow Days off school

Green Tea
By Lizzy Diaz

Green tea is the best
It eases my mind from stress
Green tea is my life

The British know – there’s no cure
Like a proper cup of tea

by Elijah Olmos

World Literature
Every Tuesday and Thursday
Eternal torture

(Student added the marginal note: “Sarcastic, of course”)

Sarcastic student’s poem
Requires a grade of F… psyche!

Extra Credit
by Lizzy Diaz

I need to write this
So I can get my grade up
Please help me through this

Dear, your wish is my command
Here’s 5 points extra credit

by Lizzy Diaz

Mrs S is cool
She lets me turn in late work
Unlike Mrs R

Mrs R, the expert teacher
Perhaps I should grade harder

by Lizzy Diaz

French fries are so good
But they go right to my thighs
Then I want to cry

So sad that potato with
Oil and heat should make you cry

by Jed Shank

Cold winter is here
I feel something on my back
Pain from father’s fist

Lazy no-good son sits by fire
I must rouse him back to life

Soldier of Death
by Jed Shank

A shimmering blade
Honor, courage, loyalty
Now covered in blood

The glory of war requires
No shrinking from dealing death

Growing Up
by Jed Shank

A leaf falls from tree
Seeking out new adventure
Shattered on the dirt

They told me that I must fly
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

by Jed Shank

Embraced in warm arms
A dimming sense of relief
Never not alone

How soon they outgrow and leave
The circle of a mother’s arms

by Jed Shank

Folding brother’s clothes
Not sure whose clothes are whose
Now they are all mine

He may scold and cry but he
Can’t argue with possession

by Daniel Reilly

When winds do whisper
When words are carving rivers
The pages will turn

Canyons cut through stone by verse
Pen is mightier than sword

by Sandis Wightman

I don’t like poems
I don’t like reading poems
Or writing poems

Student complains of writing
But I have to read them all

Marital Bliss
by Michael Capparelli

She talks on and on
Her words destroy my small ears
My wife calls to me

My husband gazes into space
He must be both deaf and dumb

by Shay Wilderman

So roses are red
Violets are blue, yet
Pine trees are festive

Festive, yes, and it would be hard
To decorate a flower

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World Lit – What Abeka Missed

I’m teaching World Literature to high schoolers this year.  I’ve never done World Lit., so I’m really enjoying it.

We’re using Abeka’s textbook, because it is less distressing than any of the other textbooks I reviewed for the subject.  Apparently, to American publishers, “World Lit” means “American and British Lit with a token Foreign Author thrown in every six weeks or so.”

Balderdash, I say.

So we’re using the textbook as more of a guideline.  Like the Pirate Code.

At any rate, it’s been good so far.  Granted, we had to start in Chapter 11, because that’s when the course finally gets around to starting at the chronological beginning, but the content is pretty darned good.

That is, until you get to the end of Chapter 13 (Roman Times).  That chapter ends with an excerpt from Histories and Annals by Tacitus, which was written in Rome around 110-115 AD.  Chapter 14 (The Middle Ages) starts with an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was written in Italy from 1308-1320 AD.

So according to Abeka, nothing was written, in the entire world, between 110 and 1320 AD.

So we had to fix that.  Here’s a photo of the timeline we put together on the board.  It doesn’t have everything on it that we discussed, but it does at least have some major political events and references to a few pieces of literature.  It’s a stab in the right direction anyway.

Timeline - What A Beka Missed in the Middle Ages.JPGLuckily all this literature is old enough that I was able to find copies of it online and send the students home with a stack of handouts to read.

I’m fuming, however, about the fact that I had never heard of this stuff, other than Beowulf and Everyman and The Song of Roland, considering I was a Lit Major in college.  World Lit was not a requirement back in the day.  Next year I’m going back to finish my degree and boy howdy, Multicultural Lit is one of the first courses I aim to take!

Because for one thing, I’m probably doing most of the homework this year as I plan my lessons…. 🙂


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The Art of the Field Trip

It’s Throwback Thursday, so I thought I’d bring out this blog I wrote in 2012.  Note: This has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I found it in the Drafts folder and realized I never actually hit the “Publish” button.  I’m just being cool and retro here.

I’m a Field Trip Wimp.   I would say field trips stress me out even more than glitter glue and Play Doh.   So while my kids have attended field trips over the years, they have been few, far between and inevitably planned by Someone Else.  I am not an event planner.  Just don’t have that gene.  Eight months as the Event Coordinator for a small church 25 years ago convinced me of that fact.  It wasn’t pretty.

At some point, however, I became determined to break the Field Trip Barrier, conquer the art of the educational excursion and get the kids as far away from that blasted X Box as possible.  I forced myself to do a few outings, and then a few more, and along the way I learned a few things.  And since I’m fairly certain that I am not alone in my peregrinandaphobia, I thought I would share:

Steps To The No Fail Successful Field Trip

1) Consider your kids first. The field trip is about them, not about you and your event planning abilities, nor is it even about the photos you can brag-post on social media after the fact.  Small children have short attention spans, need naps and frequent food breaks and will not actually remember the details of the trip when they get older.  They will remember if they had a good time and if Mom and/or Dad were happy.  So set your expectations at reasonable levels for the age and temperament of your kids.  The trip doesn’t have to last all day.  A couple of hours is fine.  If they are older, you can be more lavish.  But a 3 year old will enjoy the play structure at McDonalds about the same as any other place you take them, cost notwithstanding.  So save your money and your lengthy trips until they are old enough to appreciate them.

2) Check the weather before you go. Dress in layers, and bring a jacket no matter what the weatherman says.  You can always leave it in the car or in a locker.

3) Read up before you go.  Just a brief perusal of the website for the place you are visiting may provide a wealth of information that will help you feel more prepared, such as what kinds of bags or backpacks are allowable, what the weather is usually like, as well as directions.

4) Pack your lunch.  As a 15-year homeschooling veteran, this is actually the hardest part for me, because lunch-packing is not something I have a lot of practice with.  I get lunch-packing stage fright. What if I pack something that will get squished?  What if it’s inedible by the time it’s time to eat it?  Will I carry it around with me or leave it in the car?  What if I pack too little and everyone’s still hungry?  What if I pack too much and end up schlepping extra weight around all day, only to throw the wilted remains out when I get home?  The guilt!  The shame!  Seriously, the lunch-packing thing has actually talked me out of field trips a couple of times. More than a couple of times. But packing your lunch will save  you a lot of money, and seriously, it’s one meal.  You can eat a PBJ for one meal.  The point is the field trip, not the food.

Having driven in circles a few times around this road construction site en route to a field trip, we tried to convince the kids this was the Getty Museum.  They didn’t fall for it.

5) Sunscreen.  Do I need to be any clearer about that?  Even if it’s overcast.  Sunscreen.

6) Check a traffic website for any road closures that may occur.  This is not a must-do, but we have arrived at destinations a couple of times, only to find that the road we needed to turn on was closed for construction.  It’s usually not that hard to follow a detour, but it does take extra time and your stress level will be less if you know it’s coming.

Now that I have given you all kinds of boxes to check off and stress over, keep uppermost in your mind the thought that even if you fail in ALL of these areas, you can still have fun.  It may be more expensive that you wished (if you forgot the food and have to buy some), and you may do some unexpected exploring (if you forgot the directions), but honestly, even the worst disasters can be salvaged with the right attitude, which makes this point THE MOST IMPORTANT INGREDIENT TO A SUCCESSFUL FIELD TRIP.

Bringing An Adventurous Attitude:

When our oldest kids were 2 and 3, we decided to take a family outing to the L.A. Zoo on a Saturday.  By the time naps were done and diaper bags were packed, the afternoon was getting on, but it’s a quick jaunt up the freeway away from where we live, so we figured we could still have a good hour or two at the zoo, which was more than enough time for kids that age to visit.  We hopped in the car, buzzed down the freeway… and came to a standstill about 15 minutes away from our house.  Traffic jam on a Saturday?  Who knew?   It took us an hour and a half to do what should have been a 30 minute trip, and by the time we got to the zoo and saw that it closed in 45 minutes, it just didn’t seem worth it.  So we got back in the car, and my husband, who at that point had very little experience with spontaneity and had yet to be trained by my British sense of Making The Best Of Things, was intending to drive straight back home.  With some quick talking, I convinced him that we could still make it into an adventure, and the kids would never know it wasn’t according to plan.   So we drove west instead of south,  found ourselves in Santa Monica, bought some ice cream and found a park, and the kids had a great time.  They never knew what they had missed, and we both learned how easy it is to turn a day around with the right attitude.

The point is, the trip is about enjoying time together and having an adventure.  It doesn’t matter if the adventure varies a bit from the one you had in mind. Buying shoes in a drug store because a child forgot to put any on can be an adventure (yep, we did that.  She was so excited to go somewhere, she didn’t notice that her feet were bare).  Eating a burger in an old, local-landmark burger joint while Dad walks back to the side of the freeway and tries to recover the items that flew out of the trailer can be an adventure (the 10 year old is still talking about that one… and asking if we can go back there).  Packing up a campsite in one hour flat and racing home just ahead of a snowstorm in June can be an adventure.  In fact, all our best excursion stories come from the things that went wrong.

In the end, it all comes down to refusing to let a change in plans be considered a problem.  Flat tire? That’s an opportunity to meet new people.  Forgotten item?  A chance to explore a local shop.  It’s not a problem.  It’s simply a change in schedule.

Success on a field trip is not measured in adherence to a schedule you arbitrarily set from the comfort of your home before actually BEING in the location.  Success is measured by smiles, discoveries, and happy memories.

And after that’s covered, sure, by photos posted on social media.

kids at lego land 2004ish


Categories: Family, Field Trips, Homeschooling, Kids, Travel | Tags: , | Leave a comment

“And then she slugged me…”


For the last writing assignment of the year for my twice-weekly Comp/Lit class, I assigned this prompt, which comes from the book Unjournaling by Dawn DiPrince and Cheryl Miller Thurston:

“Write a paragraph that starts with this sentence: Why don’t you learn how to talk to a rooster? and ends with this one: She slugged me.

This has made for some highly enjoyable grading.  In fact, I have enjoyed reading the responses so much I may just make this an end-of-the-year tradition.  Out of all of them, though, my favorite was the last one I corrected, turned in late by the one student who was often late turning in homework.  She is highly dyslexic and the administration wasn’t even sure she should be in my class.  However, I had already had her in my Classical Conversations class the year before and knew how brilliant she is despite her struggles with writing, so I agreed to have her included in the class.

All that to say, not only do I love this piece for its humor, and for the fact that she wove the sentences together in a less-than-direct manner, but also because this is what a dyslexic, who last year struggled with complete sentences, can do when given a chance (and, I might add, a private tutor, with whom she worked on the side all year).

“Why don’t you learn how to talk to a rooster?” Arnold, I hoped, joked. We were sitting in his living room looking at the classes to take when he made his outrageous comment. When I explained to him that I was in the middle of deciding which language to take, either Japanese or Spanish, that is when Arnold thought of the rooster language.  Mainly, I think, so that he could volunteer me to go to his uncle’s farm this summer and not him.  When he saw that I was not convinced he set out to explain why his made up language was better.

“First off, you only want Japanese because you and your cousin are going to Japan in the summer,” he concluded.

“And what’s wrong with that?” I interjected.

“Nothing, but it’s hard and you’ll need more time to really retain it and you are way too lazy and busy to do that well.”

“I am not!” I yelled like a little kid. “But I do see your point.  And besides, my cousin does speak Japanese fluently and did say she would love to translate for me.  So that leaves Spanish?”

“Well, first off, don’t you speak Spanish effortlessly?” Arnold reminded me.

“Well yes, but…”

“And didn’t you want to really work for your grade and gain something, not just breeze through it like art last year, where you complained the whole time that you were bored?” he lectured.

“Okay, okay, you are right, as always,” I conceded.

“Okay, so rooster it is!” he shouted joyfully.

“No… I have another idea…”

The next day I sat in Latin class, not because that was my idea but because French was all booked and when I told my teacher it was a dead language, she, who must have heard that a lot, slugged me.

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DNA Part One – With Fear and Trembling

Since I have four blogs, I’m not always clear in my head. That is, I’m not always clear in my head when typing a post, as to which blog should be the platform for it. And once it is published, it’s too late to change. So here is the first of a four-part series inspired by a Classical Conversations Challenge II Biology experiment, which I posted on one of my other blogs before realizing it really belonged here — you can find the rest of the series once you get there.

Julia's Inner Monologue

strawberrySome of you may know that as a Classical Conversations Challenge II Director, along with tutoring the students through subjects for which I have a personal affinity, I must also work with them on their Biology.  Now, Biology is a perfectly respectable, and may I say, necessary subject for high school students. However, it was the one subject I avoided at all costs during my own high school career, managing to take what amounted to a Biology For Dummies class in college in order to fulfill graduation requirements and hoping upon passing the class to never have to revisit it.

It’s not the dissection.  I have control of my gag reflex, so I can dissect.  I can even appreciate the marvels of anatomy that we are exploring as we dissect, and last year I actually had a lot of fun guiding the students through their microscope labs and dissections.


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Of Hobbits and Editing and Websites That Only Link To Images

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug came out on DVD today.  I would like to say that this post is in honor of that, but it is in fact merely coincidence that I thought to write this post today.  In fact, if my far-thinking husband had not pre-ordered a copy for us, and if my long-suffering mail carrier (he’s a very nice man but my dogs hate him) had not just delivered it a few minutes ago, I might have completely missed the fact that I am writing about the Hobbit on the day that Peter Jackson’s second movie hit the DVD market.

Originally, I wanted to simply link a website to the Pinterest board I maintain for all things to do with British Literature (or rather, all things pertaining to the particular British Literature course I direct as a Challenge II Director for Classical Conversations). However, that particular web page does not contain any images, and Pinterest will only link to images.  I will refrain from commenting upon that fact and simply say that this explains why I have written this completely redundant blog entry. Think of this as a gateway-post to a much more informative site.

Herein begins the actual point of my post:

When J.R. Tolkien first wrote The Hobbit, he characterized Gollum as an odd yet cooperative little fellow, who willingly gave up his precious ring as a prize for the game of riddles he plays with Bilbo.  When the ring came into a new light in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkien had to rewrite Chapter Five of the Hobbit to make the ring more sinister and portray Gollum as its victim, enthralled by the magic ring and therefore unwilling to give it up.

This means that the 1937 First Edition of The Hobbit has a slightly different story than anyone purchasing a later edition.  Being an erstwhile editor myself, that fact alone was not enough to satisfy me.  I needed to see it for myself.

Fortunately, Jack Barker of Ring Game Web Site offers this marvelous side-by-side comparison of the two versions of Chapter Five.

006cropAnd just so that I can link this to my Pinterest board, so that my students can find it, here is a picture of the book.  I took it myself, so it’s royalty-free.  If you click on the picture of the book, it will take you to Mr. Barker’s comparison.

I think I have jumped through enough hoops for one lesson plan, so I will end this here.

Although I must add, if anyone would like to read further into the implications of the revision, here is another excellent article by William D.B. Loos and Wayne G. Hammond Jr. over at The Grey Havens that discusses it at some length.

No, wait, still not ending… just in case you haven’t yet been deluged on your favorite social media site with one of those interminable lists that are all the rage these days, even making their way into badly-written “news” articles authored by interns who still haven’t figured out the difference between “your” and “you’re,” here is a quite comprehensive list of “25 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About The Hobbit” by Tom Hawker.  While I am pleased to report that Tom Hawker’s grammar is flawless, I apologize in advance for his occasional forays into juvenile locker-room humor.


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Stumbling Upon the Unexpected

FFWelcomeSignThis week we took a day trip to Forest Falls, CA, so that our 18 year old daughter could check out a camp where she was considering a summer job. Once that was accomplished, we set out to make the most of the destination; a two hour drive seemed a little much if the only result was a 30 minute visit to the camp. There wasn’t much to the town itself – other than the camp, there were just a lot of charming mountain-cabin type residences, a Mexican restaurant, a post office and a few other businesses.

Had we considered the name of the town, we might have had an inkling of what we would eventually find, but as so often happens, the meaning of the name had become eclipsed by its functionality as a label for the town, and we missed the clue right in front of us. And so it was tempting, after a cursory glance around, to give up and drive back down the hill to the nearest mall and simply take the kids to a movie.

All that promising snow... there had to be a way to get to it.

All that promising snow… there had to be a way to get to it.

But we had driven for two hours. Through L.A. traffic. We were not going to give up so easily, and the scenery around us was so beautiful, we weren’t ready to leave it.  Besides, as a family, we have a history of discovering delightful places and meeting interesting people at the very point where our trip appears to be derailing.

Curious 13 year old wanting to see snow up close + zoom lens = discovery of creepy face on mountainside.

Curious 13 year old wanting to see snow up close + zoom lens = discovery of creepy face on mountainside.

And we couldn’t help but notice that the hills that rose steeply on either side of the town were covered in snow, almost close enough to touch, so we followed the main road, hoping it might lead us up past the snowline.

It ended a disappointing half a mile after the town, but there we discovered a park.

And better yet, actual patches of snow!

No, really, actual SNOW!

No, really, actual SNOW!

You have to understand that my kids have never lived anywhere but Los Angeles. This was only the second time any of them had been able to touch snow, and the first time the younger two were 2 and 4 years old and don’t remember it. So this was road-trip heaven.


After a snowball fight or two, and the discovery on the part of the younger two that snow really is freezing cold and there is only so much snow play one can indulge in with bare hands, my husband discovered a sign that said “Waterfall Trail.”

Again we hesitated, debating whether the trail, which at first glance seemed to lead only through flat, high desert terrain, was named accurately.  Again, the name of the town escaped us.

On top of that, we reasoned, there didn’t seem to be enough water in the creek beside the trail for there to be an actual waterfall at any point downstream.  In true L.A. fashion, we suspected that the whole thing was going to turn out to be false advertising.

0403141546But the last decision to press on had paid off, so we walked a few steps down the trail, and then a few more.

0403141539aThe scenery was breathtaking, and with each bend we rounded it got even better. The kids insisted that that roaring noise in the distance had to be more than just the wind in the trees, so we persevered.


“…with each bend we rounded it got even better.”

The trail was well-marked at some points, lined either side with rocks. At other points it was not so clear, seeing as it led through areas completely covered with the same kind of rocks interspersed with sandy patches that might or might not actually be the trail.  We eventually decided that the trail crossed the creek beside which we had been hiking and ascended the opposite bank.

Since the creek had dwindled to a trickle at this point, we had no problem crossing it. Mounting the bank on the other side and rounding a hill, we discovered that there was indeed a waterfall, and that it had nothing to do with the tiny creek we had been hiking beside.


The lower falls

Further hiking up a steep hill revealed that there was actually a series of waterfalls, with the top one being the most spectacular in height.


The upper falls.

190We found some rocks and sat for a while, taking in the roar of the water and the silence around it. The 13 year old pulled out her journal and spent a good 15 minutes of bliss drinking in the surroundings and writing her thoughts.

212The 12 year old hid under fallen trees and jumped from rock to rock.  The 18 year old tested the temperature of the water and filled a bottle with it, reasoning that the 100 foot drop it had just traversed would have filtered it, and we all tried a sip.

(She later told us she had climbed further up and discovered a half-decomposed dead bird floating in a pool upstream, which gave us pause for a few, heart-stopping moments, until my husband noticed the twinkle in her eye. But that’s a story for another post.  Perhaps one about “why my children are so mean and I’m sure I don’t know where they get it from.”)

0403141611aAnd then it was time to reluctantly retrace our steps back to the van, carrying a camera full of images and refreshed and rejuvenated hearts. I think it was on this part of the trip that one of us said, ‘Ohhhhh, right, Forest FALLS!”  We climbed wearily into the van and wound our way down the mountain road, blasting Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire,” since we felt like we had been on an unexpected journey worthy of Bilbo Baggins and wanted to squeeze the last moments of adventure out of the day.

Categories: Family, Field Trips, Homeschooling, Kids, Los Angeles, Travel | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland


Now, this was not really what I had in mind when I created this blog, but I have need of a place to put this, and it doesn’t escape me how perfectly the titles match, so here it is.

My Classical Conversations Challenge II class is reading Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland this week.  Yes, it’s known as a children’s book, but unless you are a child living in Victorian London, you will probably not understand most of the allusions in this book, so it does actually provide a challenge to the 10th grade mind.  To make the enjoyment easier for this book, I will attempt to explain some of the references and allusions here. But first I will digress.

The first thing you have to keep in mind about Alice’s Adventures is that it was written by a British Person.  This is a very important detail.  British people love… LOVE to play with words.  You see that in Dickens, in Oscar Wilde, in Harry Potter (Diagon Alley?  Seriously?  You get that, right?), and you will see that all over Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  Especially Chapter 9.  Just look for the puns, people.

Also, British adults love to tell funny stories to kids and weave in satirical political zingers or commentaries on society that only an adult would get.  It’s just what we do.  The kids don’t notice, and the adults who happen to overhear silently bust a gut over in the corner, trying not to interrupt.  That’s how British humor works — as long as one person in the room gets it, it’s worth it.  In fact, if ONLY one person in the room gets it, it’s three times as funny.  There’s probably a mathematical formula for that.

And British people love to be silly, but only when it is agreed all around that it is an appropriate time to be silly, such as when one is telling a story to children.  Or when one is being John Cleese, but that only applies to one of us, so it’s not actually a very good rule of thumb.

At any rate, here are the things that British school-children in 1865 would have found side-splittingly funny, but which probably go right over the heads of the rest of us.

Chapter One

As Alice is falling down the rabbit hole, she begins to recite facts that might apply to her situation.  British education of the time dealt in a lot of memorization and recitation.  The fact that she uses words that apply only slightly, although without knowing their actual meaning, is delightful. It’s like when someone posts a list of really bad answers to test questions; we find it so funny because you can see how the kid ALMOST grasped the concept but then totally didn’t.

The rest of Chapter One comprises mostly of the eating and drinking of cakes and unidentified liquids, which, as they are not explicitly marked “poison,” must be all right.  This is one of those social commentaries that the kids might feel flying over their heads, but as they don’t have enough experience to grasp it, just let the thought fly on by.

This chapter is also why Lewis Carroll is purported to have written this story by simply writing down what he saw while under the influence of a substance he certainly should not have ingested.  But that’s a whole other discussion that has been thoroughly explored by Jefferson Airplane.

Chapter Two

Alice, in trying to pull herself together after a long, hard trip, once again resorts to listing things that she knows, but everything is so muddled she settles on reciting a poem.  Unfortunately, it starts out “How doth the little crocodile…” and goes downhill from there.  Here is the text of the poem Carroll was parodying, which was a poem school children had to memorize, and which was supposed to instill in them a work ethic and make them Good Citizens.

The Busy Bee children's periodical, 1866

The Busy Bee children’s periodical, 1866

How Doth the Little Bee
Isaac Watts

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

How skillfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.

In Works of Labor or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last


A Lory

Chapter 3

Alice finds herself in the company of a host of creatures who fell into the puddle of her tears.  Among them are a lory and a dodo.  Here are images of those birds:


A Dodo

Also, here is a definition: A “Caucus-race” is a political competition; the game of campaigning and one-upmanship to get votes and be elected.   Thanks to Carroll, the term “caucus race” has now taken on the added meaning of a confusing, complicated and generally useless exercise.

Chapter 5

The Caterpillar asks Alice to recite “You Are Old, Father William” to demonstrate how everything has become muddled.  The poem Carroll is parodying here is:

The Old Man’s Comforts And How He Gained Them

by Robert Southey

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
The few locks which are left you are grey;
You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man,
Now tell me the reason I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,
I remember’d that youth would fly fast,
And abused not my health and my vigour at first
That I never might need them at last.

you are old father william

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
And pleasures with youth pass away,
And yet you lament not the days that are gone,
Now tell me the reason I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,
I remember’d that youth could not last;
I thought of the future whatever I did,
That I never might grieve for the past.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
And life must be hastening away;
You are chearful, and love to converse upon death!
Now tell me the reason I pray.

I am chearful, young man, Father William replied,
Let the cause thy attention engage;
In the days of my youth I remember’d my God!
And He hath not forgotten my age.

Chapter 6

The Duchess sings a horrible song to her baby, beginning with “Speak roughly to your little boy…”  What made it funny, rather than horrible, to the children of the day, however, is that it was based on the following poem:

Speak Gently
G. W. Langford

Speak gently! It is better far
To rule by love than fear
Speak gently; let no harsh word mar
The good we may do here!

Speak gently to the little child!
Its love be sure to gain;
Teach it in accents soft and mild;
It may not long remain.

Speak gently to the young, for they
Will have enough to bear;
Pass through this life as best they may,
’Tis full of anxious care!

Speak gently to the aged one,
Grieve not the care-worn heart;
Whose sands of life are nearly run,
Let such in peace depart!

Speak gently, kindly to the poor;
Let no harsh tone be heard;
They have enough they must endure,
Without an unkind word!

Speak gently to the erring; know
They must have toiled in vain;
Perchance unkindness made them so;
Oh, win them back again.

Speak gently; Love doth whisper low
The vows that true hearts bind;
And gently Friendship’s accents flow;
Affection’s voice is kind.

Speak gently; ’tis a little thing
Dropped in the heart’s deep well;
The good, the joy, that it may bring,
Eternity shall tell.

Chapter 9

We called him a tortoise because he taught us.  You have to pronounce this with an English accent to get it.  Go ahead.  Try it.

miss happy crop

Finally, a clothing store for clumsy women.

“French, music and washing – extra.”  This does not, as at least one article I have read suggests, allude to the fact that women in Victorian times were only supposed to know about things like laundry.    Let us all pause a moment and shake our heads at this nonsense, which obviously sprang, fully formed, from the mind of a person with no sense of humor.

No, this line is simply an instance where Carroll, having seen something that always struck him as funny but never having had a place to use it, jumps at the chance and works it into the discussion.  According to “The Annotated Alice,” this phrase often appeared on advertisements for boarding schools, meaning that there was an extra charge for French and music, and for having one’s laundry done by the school. (source: Gardner, M., The Annotated Alice, 1998, p.128))

I find this delightful, because this is the type of thing, when I find it in a footnote at the bottom of a brochure, or a public sign, or a store name, that just sends me into hysterics.  Like this (sadly, now closed) women’s clothing store near my home.  I drove past it one day specifically so I could get a photo of it.

Come on, think about it.  Mishap-y?

At any rate, once Carroll got on a roll in this chapter, he just could not stop the puns from happening.  My British father used to be like this.  He could go on for a good 10 minutes on one subject, working related words into every sentence.  Like trees:  “You’re obviously barking up the wrong tree there.”  “I can’t be-leaf you just said that.”  “This conversation needs to branch out into other topics.”   And on and on.

As much as I hate to ruin a good pun by spelling it out, here is a short list of the puns in the Mock Turtle’s description of his education.  Before you read the list, see how many of the puns you can get on your own.  It really helps to speak the words out loud.  Even if you can’t do a British accent.

Puns about the Mock Turtle’s Education:

Reeling – reading

Writhing – writing

Ambition – addition

Distraction – subtraction

Uglification – multiplication

Derision – division

Mystery – history

Seaography – geography

Drawling – drawing

Stretching – sketching

Fainting in coils – painting in oils

Laughing – Latin

Grief – Greek

lessons – lessen

Chapter 10

The Mock Turtle sings a song while he and the Gryphon demonstrate a dance called the Lobster Quadrille to Alice, “Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail…



Here is the poem being parodied (and a picture of a whiting, just for fun)

The Spider And The Fly

by Mary Howitt  (1799-1888)

“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly;
“‘Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you may spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to show when you are there.”
“Oh no, no,” said the little fly; “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”

“I’m sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high.
Well you rest upon my little bed?” said the spider to the fly.
“There are pretty curtains drawn around; the sheets are fine and thin,
And if you like to rest a while, I’ll snugly tuck you in!”
“Oh no, no,” said the little fly, “for I’ve often heard it said,
They never, never wake again who sleep upon your bed!”

Said the cunning spider to the fly: “Dear friend, what can I do

To prove the warm affection I’ve always felt for you?
I have within my pantry good store of all that’s nice;
I’m sure you’re very welcome – will you please to take a slice?”
“Oh no, no,” said the little fly; “kind sir, that cannot be:
I’ve heard what’s in your pantry, and I do not wish to see!”

“Sweet creature!” said the spider, “you’re witty and you’re wise;
How handsome are your gauzy wings; how brilliant are your eyes!
I have a little looking-glass upon my parlor shelf;
If you’d step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself.”
“I thank you, gentle sir,” she said, “for what you’re pleased to say,

And, bidding you good morning now, I’ll call another day.”

The spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly fly would soon come back again:
So he wove a subtle web in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready to dine upon the fly;
Then came out to his door again and merrily did sing:
“Come hither, hither, pretty fly, with pearl and silver wing;

Your robes are green and purple; there’s a crest upon your head;
Your eyes are like diamond bright, but mine are dull as lead!”

Alas, alas! how very soon this silly little fly,
Hearing his wily, flattering words, came slowly flitting by;
With buzzing wings she hung aloft, then near and nearer grew,
Thinking only of her brilliant eyes and green and purple hue,
Thinking only of her crested head. Poor, foolish thing! at last

Up jumped the cunning spider, and fiercely held her fast;
He dragged her up his winding stair, into the dismal den –
Within his little parlor – but she ne’er came out again!

And now, dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly flattering words I pray you ne’er give heed;
Unto an evil counselor close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale of the spider and the fly.

Here are a couple of puns that happen after the song:

soles and eels – (shoe) soles and heels

porpoise – purpose

And finally, Carroll either really liked, or really hated the poetry of Isaac Watts.  I’m inclined to think the latter, since Mr. Watts wrote his little educational gems in the 1700s, which meant that Carroll undoubtedly was required to memorize them as a school-boy himself.  Given the wit displayed in Alice, didactic recitation was probably like nails on a chalkboard to him.

At any rate, he mangles another of Watts’ poems in Chapter 10 when Alice is again required to stand and repeat the poem, “Tis The Voice of the Sluggard” by Isaac Watts.  Her version comes out nothing like this, of course.

The Sluggard
by Isaac Watts

‘Tis the voice of the sluggard; I heard him complain,
“You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again.”
As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed,
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.

“A little more sleep, and a little more slumber;”
Thus he wastes half his days, and his hours without number,
And when he gets up, he sits folding his hands,
Or walks about sauntering, or trifling he stands.

I pass’d by his garden, and saw the wild brier,
The thorn and the thistle grow broader and higher;
The clothes that hang on him are turning to rags;
And his money still wastes till he starves or he begs.

I made him a visit, still hoping to find
That he took better care for improving his mind:
He told me his dreams, talked of eating and drinking;
But scarce reads his Bible, and never loves thinking.

Said I then to my heart, “Here’s a lesson for me,”
This man’s but a picture of what I might be:
But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding,
Who taught me betimes to love working and reading.

Oh, but we are still not done with Chapter 10.  Carroll was waxing quite lyrical when he penned this chapter.  He finishes it off with his own version of a popular song known as “Beautiful Star.”  Carroll’s version is “Beautiful Soup.”

“Star of the Evening” (1855)
[aka “Beautiful Star”]
Words and Melody by James M. Sayles.

Beautiful star in Heaven so bright,
Softly falls thy silv’ry light,
As thou movest from earth afar,
Star of the evening, Beautiful star.
Star of the evening, Beautiful star.

Beautiful star, (Beautiful star,)
Beautiful star, (Beautiful star,)
Star of the eve-ning
Beautiful, Beautiful star.

In fancy eye’s thou seem’st to say,
Come, come with me from earth away,
Upwards thy spirit’s pinions try,
To realms of peace beyond the sky,
To realms of peace beyond the sky.

Shine on oh! star of love divine,
May our soul’s affections twine A
Around thee, as thou mov’st afar,
Star of the twilight, Beautiful star,
Star of the twilight, Beautiful star

Chapter 11

Queen_of_Hearts_Mother_Goose2The accusation read by the White Rabbit at the trial in Chapter 11 is actually taken from a nursery rhyme.

The Queen of Hearts
She made some tarts,
All on a summer’s day;
The Knave of Hearts
He stole those tarts,
And took them clean away.
The King of Hearts
Called for the tarts,
And beat the knave full sore;
The Knave of Hearts
Brought back the tarts,
And vowed he’d steal no more.

Chapter 12

The final poem in the book begins with “They told me you had been to her…” Originally the first stanza read:

She’s all my fancy painted him
(I make no idle boast);
If he or you had lost a limb,
Which would have suffered most?

But for some reason, Carroll dropped this initial stanza.  Without it, there is no way to tie his poem to the one that inspired it; perhaps this is why Carroll dropped it — the poem took on a life of its own and didn’t need the parody aspect, and since the rest of the poem had nothing to do with the original, there was no point in keeping the tie-in.

At any rate, just for the sake of history, with that first stanza, one can trace the poem to this one:

Alice Gray
William Mee

She’s all my fancy painted her, she’s lovely, she’s divine,
But her heart it is another’s, she never can be mine.
Yet loved I as man never loved, a love without decay,
Oh, my heart, my heart is breaking for the love of Alice Gray.

Her dark brown hair is braided o’er a brow of spotless white,
Her soft blue eye now languishes, now flashes with delight;
Her hair is braided not for me, the eye is turned away,
Yet my heart, my heart is breaking for the love of Alice Gray.

I’ve sunk beneath the summer’s sun, and trembled in the blast.
But my pilgrimage is nearly done, the weary conflict’s past;
And when the green sod wraps my grave, may pity haply say,
Oh, his heart, his heart is broken for the love of Alice Gray!

Categories: British Literature, Homeschooling | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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