The Lost Words: A Spell Book (review)

lost words, the (1 cover)

For the inaugural book review for The Nature Book Nook, I can’t think of a better title to share about than The Lost Words: A Spell Book. The book’s inception is due to the removal of nature words (such as  acorn, bluebell, cygnet, fern, heron, kingfisher, newt, otter, and pasture) from the Oxford Junior Dictionary (while words characteristic of our increasingly online world remain or were added).* The Lost Words combines playful, acrostic** poems (or spells) by British writer Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places, Landmarks) with dynamic yet soft paintings of flora and fauna by Jackie Morris to show that nature, and the language which helps humans describe and appreciate it, are too important to fade away from younger generations.


Fern’s first form is furled,
Each frond fast as a fiddle-head.
Reach, roll and unfold follows.
   Fern flares.
Now fern is fully fanned.

Twenty species of animals and plants in all are conveyed through the spells, some of which read like poetry while others indeed feel like spells to be read aloud, at once fun for the way the words roll off the tongue, especially those with alliteration and clever rhymes; and for the way one might feel that something indeed is about to happen once the spell is read. Perhaps what is intended by the author is that upon reading, one will feel the urge to connect with nature.


When wren whirrs from stone to furze the world around
   her slows, for wren is quick, so quick she blurs the air
   through which she flows, yes –

Rapid wren is needle, rapid wren is pin –  and wren’s song
   is sharp-song, briar-song, thorn-song, and wren’s flight
   is dart-flight, flick-flight, light-flight, yes –

Each wren etches, stitches, switches, glitches, yes –

Now you think you see wren, now you know you don’t.

The Lost Words is a large book, in size and weight, and thus is not an easy one to incorporate into bedtime reading. I think this book is better suiting to family reading time during another part of the day, or in educational settings, whether in the classroom, homeschooling space, or as part of an outdoor lesson. Either way, it is definitely a book that should be shared across generations, and reading together might allow for older readers to share with younger readers about their memorable experiences in nature, especially if centered on one of the words in the book. The Lost Words calls to the reader to reclaim the language of nature and keep it alive.

My daughter showing off the river otters from The Lost Words.

* here’s the petition that called on Oxford University Press to reinstate the nature words, and OUP’s response.
**this was a new word for me, acrostic: a (usually short) poem (or other composition) in which the initial letters of the lines, taken in order, spell a word, phrase, or sentence (Oxford English Dictionary).

Title: The Lost Words: A Spell Book
Author: Robert Macfarlane
Illustrator: Jackie Morris 
Published by: Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2017
Pages: 128
Suggested Age: Family

Purchase: Amazon (affiliate link), Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound

The making of a modern ‘spell-book’, from Penguin
A 23-minute interview with the author from the UK bookstore Waterstones
A timelapse video of the illustrator painting a wren
BBC video with the author, “Do children in the UK spend enough time outdoors?”

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