Review: The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

A character in a story often doesn’t realize what treasure he possesses until he has lost it. The same can be true of a society; but thankfully our treasure has been recovered in The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.

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A number of newly-pertinent words were added to the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary for children; words like blog and voicemail. But a few people noticed that words were also left out, making way for the jargon of the technical age. These discards were words of the natural world, suddenly deemed so unfamiliar and irrelevant to the lives of children that they no longer warranted a place in a common school dictionary. Mourning their loss, Robert Macfarlane set out with illustrator Jackie Morris to bring these words back.

But surely, you protest, language changes. Antiquated terminology should be dropped in favor of current usage. What were these old words, so unceremoniously banished from the childhood lexicon?

Well, I’ll tell you.

Acorn. Dandelion. Fern. Ivy. Otter. Raven. Weasel. Willow.

There are twenty in all.

You see how grave this is from many points of view. These are simple words, naming common outdoor discoveries; they should be as familiar to any youngster as the milk she pours on her cereal. How can she not know the joy of blowing away her wishes with the dandelion seeds? How can that squished bouquet of cheerful yellow flowers not have a name? And how much fun is missed if she cannot chuckle over Piglet’s “haycorns”Aesop’s Fables and The Wind In The Willows lose vital members of their cast, and Poe’s majestic poem has no meaning for her. Such a child has been denied both experience of the natural world and references to it; how then can she love it?

But all is not yet lost. Macfarlane and Morris return these words to us in grand style. Written a decade after the telling omissions, their gorgeous book devotes three spectacular full-page spreads to the reintroduction of each word. The first two pages allocated to every lost word depict its letters, scattered like puzzle pieces with other letters among various flora and fauna. The second pair of pages presents the word, bringing it to life by describing the organism itself. An acrostic poem exuberantly depicts the plant or animal named, and opposite this is a portrait of it in detail enough to please any naturalist. On the final spread we then find a splendid illustration of the subject – now no longer lost, but lovably familiar – in its own habitat. We recognize it, and recall with satisfaction that indeed we have loved it.

The Lost Words is a lush book, and it doesn’t even need to argue that these words – these birds and beasts and growing things – are important. Rather, it shows us. It captures the gleam in a kingfisher’s eye, the temper of the irascible magpie, the twitter of a flock of starlings. It preserves the blazing beauty of the heather, and the possibilities of a lowly conker. It demonstrates the value of these lost words by reminding us that they are more than words: they are living things that have a rightful place in our language and our world.

This striking volume is large, like a coffee-table book; perfect for studying in detail. It cannot fail to ignite a fresh appreciation for our fellow creatures, and a desire to encounter them in both field and literature. The poetry is delicious and the paintings truly impressive. Readers of any age can savor it, but above all it should be shared with our children; that these words – and the wild things they represent – need not be lost from our collective memory.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker

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Review: Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals

Today I have a new book to share, bearing a memorably unusual name. Allow me to present Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals by Matthew Mehan and illustrated by John Folley.

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This ambitious book of poems features an imaginary creature assigned to each letter of the alphabet. The names of the animals are often a pun (as in the Evol, the Oominoos, and the Zealion) and their natures are explored in a poem for each with accompanying illustrations. Two of these beasts – the Blug and the Dally – venture along and meet the other animals, looking for friendship and discovering a colorful world of adventure.

The tone of the book is clever silliness, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll or A.A. Milne. It encourages development of a child’s magnificent ability to comprehend fact and fantasy equally, as the details of the fictitious beasts are presented in a variety of legitimate poetic forms along with genuinely clever wordplay and a staggering vocabulary. Fun rhymes and wild onomatopoeia are sprinkled with words like “dolorous”, “periegetic”, and “fiefdom”. The poetry is varied and smart, and the illustrations match the mood of each one.

Though each poem is artful and could stand alone, more serious is the arc of the poems when taken all together. As the Dally and the Blug progress they encounter animals with all sorts of habits and personalities. When they finally come to the joyful Zealion, they reflect that each animal is deserving of charity despite its faults, and that studied goodness is the only way to overcome the wrongs in the world. In short, brotherly love is the message here. This progression is sometimes confused within the sheer volume of detail throughout this fantastic journey, but the purpose ultimately emerges and we realize that even the more detached characters have played a part in helping us to understand the deeper meaning. Once this is clear, it’s impossible not to want to go back over each poem, combing for details.

The main text of the book is followed by lengthy appendices including a list of alliterations based on the animals’ names, a list of hidden things to look for in the illustrations, and an impressive glossary – half helpful, half humorous – of both the fanciful words and the antiquated or difficult words used throughout (and a fair smattering of literary wit and faith-based wisdom, too). An inquisitive older child might enjoy poring over these on her own, but the lavish details of this book were meant to be enjoyed by adults and children together.

The book is very nicely bound and of a lovely size; it has a huge array of activities and is clearly designed to encourage family reading time. It is intelligently put together, though perhaps so much so that not every reader will have an interest in or appreciation for every aspect (we are prompted to scour the illustrations in search of “an Oxford punting pole from the Magdalen Bridge Boat House” and “three Loeb editions, sort of”). Some of the poems could be a bit earthy for the modern reader – I am thinking of the Rare and the Tanglis particularly – but if you can handle Kipling you can handle these.

M5 (as it’s called) is a jolly, quirky book; perhaps a bit overwhelming at first glance, it materializes into something much more thoughtful, which takes time to explore. The theme so thoroughly permeates this volume – otherwise so frivolous in appearance – that it may take several readings to catch the meanings at various levels. For this reason it could be either a boon or a bore; for families who appreciate classical education, virtuous elevation, and a bit of bombastic erudition, this book is a worthy investment.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Big Words for Little Geniuses by Susan and James Patterson and illustrated by Hsinping Pan

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