I read The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

(This was part of another post – have separated it to share elsewhere.)

I just bought a book for my children, and I’m really not sure what they will think of it:

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

The other day I saw a YouTube video about children not spending time outdoors. It referenced a book, The Lost Words, a “modern spell book” about wildlife, written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris. The book was inspired when various words relating to nature were dropped from a recent edition of the Oxford Junior dictionary — including some very basic and, to us adults, familiar terms such as conker and kingfisher.

Our children’s dictionaries are letting the natural world slip from their pages? 

For a while now, I’ve been trying to find an article I read some years ago, about the relaxing/stimulating balance of outdoor play. The article, if I remember correctly, said that the outdoor environment — woods, beaches etc — provide a combination of factors that both stimulate us enough to be interesting, and also relax us. Therefore outdoor play was ideal for letting children stretch themselves without being stressed. It seemed intuitively obvious that we would be best suited to the environment that shaped our evolution, rather than a fake, modern/recent indoor environment, and so I agreed and moved on without taking note of the source reference or url. Since then, I’ve wanted to reference it and discuss it on numerous occasions but have yet to locate it. It may have been Swiss or Australian. (There were two articles on managing risk in children: one on outdoor play, one on letting children walk to school alone, one from Switzerland and the other from Aus.)

Either way, there are many references claiming that the outdoor environment provides essential components of good health. (The RSPB Every Child Outdoors report is a good read.)

So I ordered a copy of The Lost Words and had a look — it’s an unusual book for children, a mishmash of poetry and illustration, and it’s big. My first thought was, this isn’t for kids, it’s a coffee table book (for people who load their coffee tables with fancy hardbacks). But then my children started picking it up and flicking through, and they pronounced it “sort of cool”, which wasn’t so much a judgement as an expression of curiosity. They didn’t know what to make of it, either, but they didn’t pass it by. We all started at it, and figured, the ravens were the best. (Although the barn owl is gorgeous.)

So, is it a children’s book? The authors say it’s for children aged 3 to 100.

I love wildlife and paintings, but as an adult I rarely read books like this. However, I might have done as a child, and it’s taken me back there, to love it for what it is, which is unique and exciting. It’s different from our other books; it’s bold and kooky and it shows that a book doesn’t have to fit a certain formula to be great. It’s beautiful, and it’s supporting our children’s lexicon of wildlife.

So, whereas previously my book purchases for children have focused on quite a standard idea of “what will entertain most young readers”, this book is a big, bold, curio that might pique their curiosity for a few minutes, allowing them to gaze on letters scattered in leaf piles, between ravens, barn owls, and foxes, and language that’s woven in different ways. A book which will help to reinsert the language of wildlife into their days.

It definitely belongs in our Collection of Quirky Books, but I think all children should have access to it, so we’ve also given a copy to the school library.

Maybe a child will wonder, “How big is a wren?” or “What colour are a barn owl’s eyes?”

Update: I’ve just been made aware of a Crowdfunder page, raising money for every primary school in Cornwall to receive a copy of The Lost Words.

Further reading: