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The Lost Words: A Spell Book

by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
published by Hamish Hamilton at Penguin - UK
House of Anansi Press - North America
Matthes und Seitz - Germany

Since the Lost Words’ publication in October 2017, this book has had a transformative effect on all who have come in contact with it. Described as a ‘cultural phenomenon’ in the Guardian, it has become a huge bestseller, has taken root in thousands of schools across Britain, been widely acclaimed as an instant classic, won numerous prizes, and inspired many creative thinkers, young and old. It was shortlisted in 2017 as one of Britain’s favourite books of all time on the natural world (alongside titles including Tarka the Otter and Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne).

The Lost Words is a ‘book of spells’ that seeks to conjure back the near-lost magic and strangeness of the nature that surrounds us. It transcends age barriers inspiring children and moving adults with its wide appeal. It is a large hardback book – over A4 in size, and the gold lettering and eye catching ’charm’ of Goldfinches on the front cover give a hint of the treasures that lie within. Each lost word is conjured back to importance through Robert’s powerful spells. They are called ‘spells’ rather than poems as they are designed to be spoken (or sung!) out loud in order to summon back these words and creatures into our hearts. Robert explains: "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 began as a response to the removal of everyday nature words - among them "acorn", "bluebell", "kingfisher" and "wren" - from a widely used children’s dictionary, because those words were not being used enough by children to merit inclusion. But The Lost Words then grew to become a much broader protest at the loss of the natural world around us, as well as a celebration of the creatures and plants with which we share our lives, in all their wonderful, characterful glory."

Each acrostic spell has 3 accompanying artworks by Jackie Morris– a glorious triptych of watercolour painting – firstly a clever but solemn display of the creature or plant’s absence from our world, then the spell itself accompanied by an ‘icon-esque’ self portrait of the central character surrounded with sumptuous gold leaf, and finally the creature or plant is depicted embedded in its natural habitat.

The book’s beauty of both image and word is partly what has won it hundreds of thousands of admirers in a matter of months. But it is also the bearer of a powerful message about the need to close the gap between childhood and the natural world. This combination of beauty and urgency – enchantment and activism – is at the heart of the success of The Lost Words.

A book that springs forth new shoots

The book has taken on a 'wild life' of its own with the sparks of inspiration taking it in numerous creative directions.

A touring exhibition of Jackie's art work and Robert's spells began at Compton Verney, a stately home near Stratford upon Avon and has toured to The Foundling Museum in London, Inverleith House at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh and then to Nymans House, West Sussex. The exhibition is currently running at the beautiful North York Moors Gallery from 15th June - 29th July. 

As well as inspiring Spell Songs, The Lost Words is the Springboard for a number of other companion pieces. A group of young classical composers in New York, led by Aawa White, are working with the material to produce a series of new compositions and performances in North America.

A major work for children’s choir and orchestra has been co-commissioned from composer James Burton by the Boston Symphony (USA) and Hallé Orchestra (Manchester, UK) for premiere performances in 2019 (Boston) and 2020 (Hallé).

The spoken-word specialist Collette Murray is planning – in collaboration with Wild Rumpus – an immersive 'recital' project of The Lost Words, with spells spoken by famous people emerging from trees and speakers, a stage set, a first performance at Timber, the inaugural Forestry Commission Festival in the National Forest in Derbyshire, this July. Collette and her team then intend to tour the show, and to take it into schools.


And so the re-wilding begins from a grass roots level as readers aspire to bring this book into the hands of our primary school children – with the aim of re-igniting their relationship with their environment.

There are now numerous kickstarter campaigns across the UK to get copies into as many schools as possible. The idea was initiated by Jane Beaton, who drives a school bus and spontaneously decided to get the book into every school in Scotland. There are also campaigns to get copies into all state primary schools in five London boroughs, in all of North Yorkshire, Norfolk, all of Wales, Cornwall, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Peterborough, Suffolk, Cornwall, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire!

Eva John has brilliantly written and designed a free-to-download 'Explorer's Guide' to The Lost Words, which is being widely used by teachers and educators across the world. It can be downloaded for free from the John Muir Trust, who have supported the book generously from the beginning of its life.

Awards and Prizes

'Not since Ted Hughes has there been a collection of such fine and important nature poems for children. And these have the advantage of being rather more accessible to young people, without any less measure of deep awareness, sensitivity, resonance or sonority…..However the words, wonderful as they are, are only part of this book. Jackie Morris’s art spreads through it in lavish fecundity, complementing, extending, enriching the spells. [Together they make] poetry in the best sense and of the highest calibre. They use patterns of the richest and most intense language to evoke awareness of profoundly important thoughts and feelings. They illuminate life.'

'in a book of spells rather than poems, exquisitely illustrated by Morris, acorn, blackberry, bluebell, conker and kingfisher are lovingly returned to future generations of children... The spells carry the spirit of their subject in their structure. The Lost Words is a beautiful book and in terms of ideas, an important one.'
Katherine Norbury, Observer