As we meander through Asia this year, I have happened upon a book that is perfect for our purposes, quite by accident. I knew this book existed, but it hadn’t occurred to me to include it in our studies. Fortunately, the Fates were with me, and we have begun reading Memoirs of an English Governess at the Siamese Court by Anna Leonowens. The book the King and I is based on. Fabulous. I got it for a couple bucks for Kindle, and since the Littles’ tablets are hooked to my Kindle account, we can all read along together.
When I came across it, I had no idea the luxe world of words I was getting us into. But I am quite satisfied with the result. See, Anna wrote her memoirs in the mid-19th century. The century that gave us Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and the Romantic poets. A time when the only form of long-distance communication was letter writing and authors were True Wordsmiths.
The definition of a wordsmith is a skilled user of words. One of the reasons Charles Dickens is my Dead-Author Boyfriend is that he was, indeed, a skilled user of words. Luxurious, meaningful, true words. The kind that rarely get used in today’s mass market writing world. The kind that a lot of kids today have replaced with acronyms and misspellings. I love reading 19th century books because I am taken back to a time when words meant something, when they could be truly tasted and savored as they were read. I want my Littles to have that same experience.
Anna Leonowens was a true wordsmith. Take a look at this sample in which Leonowens is describing her first view as her ship leaves the ocean to enter the Meinam River:
On the other [bank], which at first I took for a floating shrine of white marble, is perhaps the most unique and graceful object of architecture in Siam; shining like a jewel on the broad bosom of the river, a temple all of purest white, its lofty spire, fantastic and gilded, flashing back the glory of the sun, and duplicated in shifting, quivering shadows on the limpid waters below. Add to these the fitful ripple of the coquettish breeze, the burnished blazonry of the surrounding vegetation, the budding charms of spring joined to the the sensuous opulence of autumn, and you have a scene of lovely glamour it were but vain impertinence to describe.
Vain impertinence, indeed. Have you ever read a description that took you Straight There any better than that? This. This is what I want my Littles to learn about Asia. How it inspires such words.
The other thing I hope they learn from reading this book is how to use words to say what they really mean. There’s nothing I hate worse than when I use a word that means what I’m saying and a listener acts like I’m the idiot for using it, when he is the one who doesn’t understand it. Let’s keep it simple and say I use the word, ‘hulking.’ And someone says, “What the hell does that even mean?” And I say, “You know, big and imposing.” And they say (condescendingly), “Why didn’t you just say big?” Well, because I didn’t mean big. I meant hulking. And how am I the idiot here?
Hmm. Kind of got off on a rant of my own.
My point is, if you want to teach your homeschoolers about Really Using the Language, you can’t go wrong with introducing them to 19th century novels and autobiographies. If you feel they aren’t quite ready for Leonowens, try Black Beauty or Alice in Wonderland. (Alice, by the way, is also a great way to introduce them to way authors can invent words that become part of everyday language.)
I mean, is it nerdy to be a wordsmith? Maybe. Some of my friends certainly tell me it is. But I would rather my Littles at least know how to be a wordsmith than grow up thinking BTW is a word. Right?
We forget, in this visual world, that words have power. It is up to us to give our littles the tools to be able to use them. So read lots of 19th century books. It will give your littles a hulking vocabulary.
P.S. I just found this great blog called Small World at Home that has an 11-part lesson plan on wordsmithery. Check it out if you want to add writing lessons to cement what your littles are reading. I didn’t go all the way through it, but Sarah offers some great ideas.
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