'The Lost Words' Restores Nature to Children's Vocabulary

This enchanting book uses poetic 'spells' and gorgeous illustrations to reconnect children to the great outdoors.

Lost Words book cover


Title: The Lost Words

Author: Robert McFarlane

Illustrator: Jackie Morris

Topic: Nature

Publisher: Anansi International

Publish Date: October 2, 2018

Page Count: 128

When I pulled out a copy of "The Lost Words," my seven-year-old son stared in amazement. The book is huge, nearly as tall as his torso, and when I opened it up, it spread across both of our laps. He read the inner title page aloud—"The Lost Words: A Spell Book"—and then looked up incredulously. "It's a spell book? Like a magic spell book?"

Indeed, that is exactly what its creators, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, set out to do when they made this unusual and, yes, enchanting book back in 2018. They were responding to a decision by the Oxford Junior Dictionary to remove around 40 common words relating to nature from its 2007 edition. These "lost words" included acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, fern, heron, kingfisher, newt, otter, and willow. They were replaced by words like attachment, blog, broadband, bullet point, cut-and-paste, and voicemail. One can only imagine how much longer that list would be now.

Macfarlane and Morris saw this as a tragic loss for children, evidence of a growing disconnect with a natural world that has long sustained and nourished humans, and a significant displacement by the indoor realm. Children have an instinctive desire to name and know animals. The problem is that their focus has shifted toward "synthetic" creatures, or made-up ones that feature in cartoons and online videos.

Macfarlane wrote for the Guardian about a 2009 study from Cambridge University that found children were better at identifying Pokémon characters than common British plant and wildlife species. They had around 80% accuracy for Pokémon, but less than 50% for real-life species. The paper concluded that children have tremendous capacity for learning about creatures, both natural and manmade, but are presently "more inspired by synthetic subjects" than by "living creatures." This contributes to a sense of isolation from nature and, hopefully, urgency on the part of adults to repair that.

The paper concluded that we need "to re-establish children's links with nature if we are to win over the hearts and minds of the next generation", for "we love what we know … What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?"

"The Lost Words" aims to do that with a delightfully magical slant. The book features 20 words, each with three dedicated page spreads. First comes a word search, where a child can decode the letters and the name of the species, painted in gold, from a scattering of alphabet letters. Next there's an acrostic poem based on each word, accompanied by a full-page painting that resembles a religious icon made with abundant gold leaf. These are called "spells" rather than poems because they are "designed to be spoken (or sung!) out loud in order to summon back these words and creatures into our hearts." Finally, there is a full double-page watercolor illustration of the plant or animal in its native habitat, often with other species hidden around the edges.

My son and I read the book in two sittings, rediscovering 10 words per night. As I read aloud, my other children came into the living room and perched on the couch, curious about what they were hearing, lured by the assonance and alliteration. They were quickly drawn into the word hunt, racing to decipher each name, and then falling quiet at the sound of the spell. Some of the words they knew, others they did not.

As Macfarlane explained, "We've got more than 50% of species in decline. And names, good names, well used can help us see and they help us care. We find it hard to love what we cannot give a name to. And what we do not love we will not save."

The book was published in 2017 and I am sorry it's taken me all these years to discover it. But its message remains relevant and its presentation is as spellbinding as ever. If there are young children in your life, then this is a book well worth checking out of the library or adding to your collection.