Children’s picture books can be magical and are an important part of the pedagogy of working with the outdoors. What better place to start this stream of the Early Childhood Outdoors blog than this review by Liz Magraw (thanks Liz!)
The Lost Words: a spell book by Robert MacFarlane, author & Jackie Morris, illustrator (2017 Hamish Hamilton)
This magical book offers a fusion of poetry with a message and of the most beautiful illustrations (indeed they go beyond illustrations and feel like paintings in their own right). You sense that there is a true communion between the writer and the illustrator.
It is enchanting, beautiful and poignant. “It conjures up common words and species that are steadily disappearing from everyday life” (Robert MacFarlane). Both Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris feel that “it is a book for all ages”, and indeed it offers something for both children and adults at the same time, which allows the readers to appreciate it on so many levels, and which make you want to return to it again and again. It is a book for keeps. It is a book for quiet meditation.
This book provides many opportunities for discussions, for artistic appreciation, for initiating discoveries on walks and for hearing and listening to beautiful words with a poetry that does not condescend to children. The acrostic poetry is rich and sensory whilst informative.
The author calls this work a “spell book” and indeed it takes you on a bewitching journey of discovery.
Each chosen word strides over three spreads.
The first gives you an impression and some visual clues as to what might come next. It gives a sense of loss, of something missing. For children beginning to show an interest in letters, their shapes and sounds, there are lots of possibilities to find them amongst the landscape illustrations. This first spread can lead children into guessing games especially on repeat readings, enhancing memory skills.
The second spread gives the word for the natural element (they come alphabetically, which alludes to dictionaries) with a poem for each element and a close up illustration. The author speaks of it as a “summoning spell”.
The third spread, which is purely visual, gives the word a context, placing the element within its natural environment, giving it perspective. For instance, the bramble’s third spread depicts some of the animals that eat blackberries; showing them in a bramble bush.
Reading this book with children brings responsibilities and needs preparation to be read rhythmically well without hesitation and with intonation. The adult has to be ready with information to respond to questions, to define some of the words in the poems. Only this will do justice to this book. As adults, falling in love with it, we can communicate our interest and our passion in the way we present it.
Interestingly, Robert MacFarlane was one of the 28 authors who wrote to the Oxford Junior Dictionary (OJD) to reverse their decision of taking natural words out of their latest edition, to be replaced by twenty-first century terms such as blog and chatroom. This is not the first time that it had happened. However it was clearly noticeable and many of the words in this book are now lost to OJD.
So, thank you Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris!
I initially bought this book as my little protest against the decision, but I am now so grateful for such a precious treasure. I would not be without it and love to share it with all around me. I sincerely hope all readers feel the same.
PS: Nottingham (UNESCO city of Literature) ran a successful crowd-funding campaign to provide a copy of this book for every Primary and Special school in the city and in Nottinghamshire – and lots of Local Authorities and Schools around the country have now done the same.