I stumbled across a copy of The Lost Words in the Book Room at Wyken Vineyards one Saturday morning about a year ago. Leafing through the pages, surrounded by the quiet hum of fellow book lovers, I feel a mixture of excitement and sadness. I suddenly longed to be a teacher again: I could envision all the wonderful classroom activities that this book could inspire, but at the same time was saddened that a book like this – aimed at encouraging children to be inspired by the natural world – should be so needed right now.
The Lost Words, for all its joyful wonder, has its origins in nostalgic sadness: in 2007 the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed words such as “wren”, “bramble” and “heron”, replacing them instead with modern, technological words such as “Wi-Fi”. The words describing the natural world – tactile, practical words about real things – were fast becoming replaced by those describing the soulless, digital world. It was this that would be the impetus for The Lost Words, combining Robert MacFarlane’s acrostic poetry with Jackie Morris’s thoughtful illustration.
I was particularly saddened to find “conker” among the pages. How can any English child’s school life be without conkers? I remember weeks and weeks of conker tournaments in the school playground during the Autumn months. Our Headmaster at Middle School even dedicated his Monday morning assemblies to playing conkers. We would gather in our classes on the school playing field to watch our champions fight it out centre-stage. Our Headmaster was strict when it came to cheating: he would personally check each conker before any fight to ensure none had been varnished or dunked in vinegar.
Do conkers really play no part in children’s lives anymore? Unfortunately, thinking back over my years teaching in a primary school, I don’t think they do.
From the opening preface, the mission of The Lost Words: A Spell Book, is clear:
Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children […] You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words”. Read this book aloud, MacFarlane promises, and that magic will “summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.
For each of the 20 words in the book – names for animals and plants that are falling out of use – MacFarlane has written an acrostic poem, some long, some short, and Jackie Morris has provided striking artwork that seems to represent the characteristics and personalities of these animals and plants.
The pleasure of this book is in sharing it and reading it aloud together. Each poem is a joy to read aloud, and many are delicious tongue twisters that force the reader to keep focus and rhythm.
MacFarlane’s writing is as passionate about language as it is about what he writes about, and its originality and observation capture each personality perfectly, bringing each and every word alive.
MacFarlane takes liberties with language to strengthen his descriptions: my favourite instance is in “Heron” where “heron, statue, seeks eel” waits, and waits, until it spots an eel, when it “unstatues”: our language needs some help if it is to be able to express the natural world.
Jackie Morris’s artwork equals MacFarlane’s verse. In fact, it was the illustrations that first drew me to this book. I love Morris’s illustrations, and her children’s book Tell Me a Dragon was a favourite of mine when I taught English to Key Stage 1. Her detailed pictures are imaginative and inventive: they never failed to inspire the best descriptive writing from my pupils. Her illustrations for The Lost Words are no exception. Whether it is a kingfisher on a branch against a backdrop of gold leaf, or a barn owl swooping above a woodland floor covered in a haze bluebells, the aliveness of her art mirrors the spirited song of MacFarlane’s writing.
I can see why teachers would love this book. It has the potential to inspire so much activity around these fading words, bringing them back in children’s minds and language. In fact, there is a whole webpage dedicated to resources and activities specifically intended for use in schools or by parents.
However, I am no longer a teacher, and I am not a mother. So what does this book offer adults, who seem equally enamoured with this book? Well, the glorious illustrations for one. Morris’s meticulous attention to detail pair realism and whimsy in beautiful harmony. Secondly, the poetry. I confess that I enjoy MacFarlane’s verse more than Ted Hughes’ nature poetry – I know that will no doubt anger many people, but it is true: it seems to get closer to the heart of its subjects. And lastly, the nostalgia. These are words from my childhood – “bluebell”, “magpie”, “newt” and (as we have established) “conker”. They are not lost to us who remember them, and I find the thought that these words may not have the same relevance for a younger generation unspeakably sad.
The real pleasure I feel when reading this book aloud is how it conjures up those words (and memories) from a childhood, and bring them alive again, and again and again.