Books tend to be put in categories. Books for children, Young Adult books, ‘’coffee-table books’’, picture books, non-fiction and poetry are labels applied to many. Every so often a book appears that defies categorisation and The Lost Words is such a book. A gloriously illustrated work of art, a collection of magic spells and most definitely a book to treasure this is a book for all ages and for all types. The Lost Words brings together poetic literature, fine art and a fascination with nature. Most importantly this is a book to share so that its message can grow, spread and work as its creators hope it will.
The origins of this book are already well known, sparked as they were by the fact that many words linked to our natural world from acorn to wren were to be dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in 2007 reflecting the decline in usage of such words. This loss coupled with the decline in play ‘’in the wild’’ for many children prompted the creation of this wonderful book in the hope that it will highlight the beauty of our world and encourage its readers, both children and adults, to pause and focus on the world around them and to appreciate our surroundings a little more.
On October 5th I was lucky enough to hear Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane speak at the launch event for their book at Foyles, Charing Cross Road. This was such a treat. As a school librarian I have seen how authors and illustrators can work their magic on a roomful of children adding to the understanding and enjoyment of a book. It was a rare privilege to experience the same thing in a roomful of adults as we listened and learned together. It was fascinating to discover that the book was born of a series of emails between the two creators and that Jackie’s original idea had been to write a sort of ‘dictionary definition’ for each word with Robert possibly providing the foreward. Once the two of them had teamed up this altered and Robert created a ‘spell’ to conjure up each natural wonder. These acrostic spells are a treat to read aloud and the use of language is wonderful. The words almost sound like the movement of some of the creatures he describes. To hear them read aloud by the author himself adds to this impact and demonstrated the gift of natural storytelling.
The book itself is truly a thing of beauty. A large hardback sumptuously illustrated this begs to be stroked even if you aren’t normally a book stroker! The pretty and so aptly named ‘charm’ of goldfinches that flit across the cover and the opening pages give a taste of what is to follow. Jackie Morris’s stunning illustrations capture and convey the beauty of plants, birds and animals with a feel of having wandered into an art gallery. They are quite simply breathtaking. The use of gold throughout the book’s pages increases the feeling of richness too. Each word is given three double paged spreads, the first two of which show the absence of the natural thing being described. It was interesting to hear how Jackie tackled this as it is clearly difficult to create an illustration that shows that something is missing. She eventually decided on a more abstract approach and letters of the alphabet are shown with those of the plant, bird or creature depicted in a different colour. This is a clever idea and a child would enjoy trying to solve the puzzle of the missing word.
Over the days since I bought my copy I keep returning to it and find it strangely calming as it encourages me to slow down and absorb the beauty of both the text and the illustrations. Jackie Morris said at the event I attended that she hoped the book would encourage people to focus on the natural world around them and this has worked for me. Daily walks now feel subtly different and I am increasingly aware of things that I had taken for granted.
This beautiful book begs to be shared and offers multiple uses in schools and I can imagine it would be a wonderful prompt for both art and writing activities. I understand that a range of teachers’ resources is being prepared which is brilliant news.
As I sit and read this book I feel a little as though I am transported back to my childhood and the magic of nature walks. This remarkable book acts as a tool to enable us as adults to ensure that children today experience that magic for themselves.
The Lost Words is a book that I am grateful to have found.
Robert Macfarlane wrote a wonderful article for the Guardian linked to this book and if you missed it you can read it here.
There is also a fascinating look at the story behind the book on Jackie Morris’s lovely website.