“All those things for which we have no words are lost.”
—Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse”
My youngest son’s favorite book, this month, is called Little Blue Truck. If you read as much children’s literature as I do, you are well acquainted with the book’s parent genre, which descends from The Little Engine That Could: a small, underpowered vehicle is called upon to do something big and scary and seemingly impossible, and either the vehicle gathers its courage, scales the mountain, and saves the day (moral: trust yourself), or else it calls on its friends and together they chug their way to victory (moral: it takes a community).
My wife and I have two children, two boys, three and seven, and every day, for the last 2,558 days, I’ve read them somewhere between 10 and 30 books. Most of the individual titles have dissolved into the blur of type—besides truck books, there are train books and construction books and family books and forest books and farm books and friend books and city books and country books and bathroom books and bedroom books and emotion books and eating-your-vegetables books and books for every other occasion, time, and situation you could think of; but the realization that’s bubbled to the surface during my immersion is that most of the books are really about the same three things: love yourself; love all the other children; love every living thing.
There are outliers in the children’s lit world, of course. The National Rifle Association has published a story called “Little Red Riding Hood (Has a Gun).” And I’m sure that the white supremacists have their own version of Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches, where those with stars on their bellies herd those without onto cattle cars.
We read to our children for all sorts of reasons. Books calm my boys down, dazzle their minds, tease their tongues with twisting sounds, show them people and animals and places from all over the world. We read to our children to bond. When my boys sit in my lap, wrapped in my arms, transfixed by word and image, it’s an excuse for me to nuzzle my nose deep into their feral, tangled curly hair and breathe of innocence and health. We read to our children to teach them something about the world. My oldest son loves to try out Spanish, loves to read about different religions, loves tales of friendships that bridge boundaries, while my youngest only wants to read stories that highlight camaraderie and mutual aid.
At some point—I’m not sure when—I began to take the books I was reading my boys as seriously as the books I read for my PhD advisors. I began to think about their meter, started paying attention to how narratives rose and fell, started taking seriously the ethics and philosophies and ideologies that scurried around each sentence; and then, the other day, a new book, by a British duo, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, called The Lost Words, came into our house.
What if we parents took children’s literature as seriously as we take philosophy, history, politics, economics?
Macfarlane is one of the most beloved living English-language nature writers at work today, and Morris, an artist and children’s book author, has earned wide acclaim for her slightly surreal art that focuses on the natural world. The Lost Words was originally Morris’s idea and stems from her sadness that, beginning in 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary, whose audience is my oldest son’s age, began removing words like “bluebell,” “acorn,” “heron,” and “kingfisher” from its pages because, in our tech-obsessed world, those words are thought not to matter as much as “broadband,” “cut and paste,” and “block graph.” Morris approached Macfarlane with the idea for a book made up of these culls; Macfarlane, it turns out, had long since been bewitched by the power nature words have to summon forth a world. It was a perfect match.
The Lost Words is physically arresting. Nearly 11 x 15 inches, printed on the heavy, glossy, peculiarly smelling stock that is reserved for art books, with highly stylized, large-face font it is immersive and wild: Morris’s art threatens to spill from the frame, gesturing to the wide-open world lying beyond the book’s covers, while Macfarlane’s words twine, skip, and trace their tracks across white expanse.
The book is composed of 20 lost words, from “Acorn” to “Wren.” Each is introduced by a two-page watercolor—a cowlick of meadow grass, a single downy feather, a thicket’s prickly brambles—through which a seemingly random scattering of letters is strewn. But look closely and you’ll see certain letters highlighted, which together spell out the word to be regained. Flip the page, and, on the left, you’ll find Macfarlane’s poetic invocation of the word, matched, on the right, by Morris’s spare art: the thing itself in translucent watercolor set off by an enormous, depthless field of gold leaf whose unpredictable, crinkly folds, tiny peaks and valleys, fill the image with a shimmering vitality.
Macfarlane’s acrostic poems are lithe acrobatics of sound, which demand, and reward, close care. Here’s “Newt,” which had my seven-year-old giggling with glee over the words’ sheer whimsy:
“Newt, oh newt, you are too cute!”
Emoted the coot to the too-cute newt,
“With your frilly back and your shiny suit
and your spotted skin so unhirsute!”
“Too cute?!” roared the newt to the
unastute coot. “With all this careless
talk of cute you bring me into
disrepute, for newts aren’t cute:
we’re kings of the pond, lions of the
duckweed, dragons of the water;
albeit, it’s true,”—he paused—“minute.”
There’s a gentle anthropomorphism reminiscent of The Wind in the Willows at work in a handful of Macfarlane’s poems, as with “Newt” and its all-too human characters; but more often his poems are vivid in their evoked ambience, as in “Kingfisher,” where the feathered thing materializes out of a tightly bundled explosion of sense impression:
Kingfisher: the colour-giver, fire-bringer, flame-flicker,
Ink-black bill, orange throat, and a quick blue
In a brief prelude, Macfarlane writes that his poems are really “spells,” “for conjuring back these lost words,” and he casts them with visual adjectives, quickening verbs, and, especially, shape-shifting metaphors—the kingfisher as the quick flicker of a flame. He’s working in a very long Romantic tradition of nature writing, and swaps descriptive scientific precision for something more ecomimetic: sensuous metonym and synecdoche embody an animal or plant (an otter is “a shadow-flutter, bubble-skein” and “an utter underwater thunderbolter”), words that vibrate with action, come alive, and launch into flight.
There’s a sonic mimicry, as well, in the way the lines flit or rattle or clomp across a page, in the way that sounds trip from the tongue. Take “Raven,” whose opening line, “Rock rasps, what are you?” sounds like the bird’s guttural “caw! caw!” These are poems that announce themselves as pure essence, an essence, one senses, that the book’s audience can possess, not in order to gain control, but to “unfold dreams and songs.” That is, there’s a surprising inwardness to Macfarlane’s poetry; his spells are aimed at changing not the outer world, but the reader’s own intimate imagination.
There are two exceptions. Both “Conker” (better known to Americans as either the horse chestnut or the buckeye) and “Willow” are marked by a gentle, though boldfaced, refusal to summon:
We will never whisper to you, listeners, nor speak, nor shout,
and even if you learn to utter alder, elder, poplar, aspen,
you will never know a word of willow—for we are willow
and you are not.
When my seven-year-old heard these lines, he didn’t laugh. He was quiet and meditative, and I, who know him so well, couldn’t begin to know what he thought, other than that think he surely did.
It’s a similar focus-compelling refusal that characterizes Morris’s extraordinary golden images. She’s a precise water colorist, and, to my eye, there’s something of Roger Tory Peterson, whose works have illustrated thousand of pages of bird identification guides, in her pictures—only not quite. Whereas Peterson’s birds are artfully generic representatives of a species, meant to aid the birder, Morris’s watercolors reach beyond the empirical plumage, pelt, or bark to something more subjective and seemingly intrinsic to her subject. Whereas Peterson’s birds are illustrations, standing in a one-to-one likeness with those of the field, I’m not sure that Morris’s are meant to represent anything. They are simply themselves, immediate and arresting. And because she backs her subjects with gold leaf, there’s no pretension to naturalism.
The longer I looked with my sons at Morris’s paintings, the more I became convinced that what she’s painted is an animist revision of the Christian religious icon, and her work is similarly radiant with devout passion. There’s no hint of anthropomorphism, nor even of naturalistic ecomimesis, and the point of convergence for Macfarlane’s prose and Morris’s art is that refusal of conker and willow to signify. While Morris’s other images—the scenes set in fields or woods—gesture at an outside world, these gold-toned ones reside in a space of inner conviction, and to watch the way they lit my children’s faces was to witness the spreading of a sublime feeling of reverent mystery.
Perhaps one of the most pressing reasons we read to our children is to teach them how to be good, and The Lost Words was made for parents like me, I think: its unstated root proposition is that we care for the things we know, that we know the things we name, that those things with no name are lost. And yet, I have found myself wondering if it wouldn’t be better for the world if the words “acorn” and “otter” and “newt” disappeared forever, if real acorns and otters and newts became invisible to humans, if in their invisibility, they became safe from humans.
After all, generations of children grew up saying “passenger pigeon” and “great auk,” just as they now say “whooping crane” and “mountain gorilla” and “great barrier reef” for those things that everyday are pushed closer to extinction. It would be nice if books mattered as much as we literary, intellectual people think they do. In other words, I have very recently found myself reconsidering why I read to my children.
The evening my wife and I first became parents, March 10, 2011, my nightmares took on a new ferocity, one that leaves me exhausted at the break of every day. I began dreaming of all the things that could happen to my child: the suffocations, the car wrecks and fires and illnesses and guns and drugs and swimming-hole accidents, all the ways that innocent lives are lost. But there is one recurring nightmare that surpasses all the others for its pure cold panic: it’s the one where my boys simply vanish. There’s no narrative to the dream, no cause, no mysterious trace to be sleuthed out, nothing that I can do. Just the emptiness of agony where once was the music of laughter.
There are many ways to lose a child. Ever since the Electoral College voted Donald Trump into the presidency, I have logged long daylit hours thinking about my nightmare. About the many ways to vanish. How did Trump become Trump? I desperately want to believe that today’s proud predator had once been a sweet, funny, inquisitive little boy with wild hair, but that his father didn’t love him enough, didn’t nuzzle him, didn’t wrap him in his arms and read him the right books with the right words, the way I hope I do for my boys, that, in the absence of care, the once-wonderful child simply disappeared. But another way to vanish is to become unrecognizable to those who know you best, and I’m terrified that Trump lost his way all by himself, despite the efforts his father made.
The Lost Words won’t save the world any more than 10,000 more books will save my sons—but, as I read it over and again with them, I realize that’s neither the book’s point nor its promise. And in scanning Macfarlane’s poems and Morris’s paintings, it dawns on me that there’s a reason to sit before a book with one’s children that I’ve so far missed. What if the millions of words that have crossed my tongue were also meant for me? What if we parents took children’s literature as seriously as we take philosophy, history, politics, economics?
What if we adults read Frog and Toad Are Friends and learned that consensual love is always to be treasured, wherever and between whomever it burns? What if we took to heart the lesson of Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, that one person’s profit will always impoverish the entire world? What if we lived our lives with the conviction of The Lion and the Mouse: always help those in need, no matter how much they differ from us. Or sat with Ferdinand the Bull, smelling the flowers, refusing to fight for the entertainment of those in power? What if, I think The Lost Words is really asking, my children and I are simply meant to cuddle, and to be, and to learn together? Perhaps that’s all we can do.
And so tonight, after work and school and daycare are over, after the dinner dishes are cleared, teeth brushed, and pajamas zipped, I’ll call out my children’s names, and we’ll gather for the ritual that has helped to define every day of their lives. We’ll welcome this new book into our family, we’ll speak the words that are not yet lost, we’ll gaze in rapture at the still-living icons. We’ll read those concluding lines from “Conker”—
Realize this (said the Cabinet-maker, the King, and
the Engineer together), conker cannot be made,
however you ask it, whatever word or tool you use,
regardless of decree. Only one thing can conjure
conker—and that thing is tree.
—and think our separate thoughts, together. I’ll sit with my two boys to confront, if never to quite conquer, the nightmares of extinction, and who knows what tomorrow will bring but another pile of books, another evening to read, another chance to conjure.
This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley.