All right, so it’s taken me a few years to share these ones but here are three of my favourite books of all time. I can’t even properly explain why but when a tale ticks multiple boxes so satisfyingly and engrosses you so completely whilst doing so, you can’t help but be muted into humble reverence. Ok, perhaps I’m trumpeting up the Word Hunters trilogy somewhat and confusing my metaphors but I reckon this series by charismatic collaborators, Nick Earls and Terry Whidborne deserves a little repeated airplay.
Therefore, from their cloistered position on my bookshelf, I reach for Word Hunters, The Curious Dictionary, the first in this divine trinity. Although in paperback, the book(s) has an alluring, timeless quality to it thanks to the cleverly designed leather-look cover and gilt bordering. But enough about aesthetics. Delve inside and you are immediately met with poetic riddles, dares, and definitions. You get the feeling you are entering hallowed ground, a place where time might lose itself, history may be rewritten and anything you say or do could alter anything you’ll end up saying or doing.
Confused yet? Well fear not, for Earls has enlisted the help of 12-year-old twins, Lexi and Al Hunter; to help save the English language and make sense of the fascinating etymological expedition they unwittingly embark on.
The Curious Dictionary, an ancient dictionary created by a chap called Caractacus and used for the last 1500 years by word hunters to protect word history, is the twins’ new Lonely Planet guide. With it they zip back and forth through the ages, hunting down words at risk of disappearing from the language and carefully tracking every step of their evolution in the past in order to keep them alive in the present (the words that is). The time travelling alone is enough to cause a bad case of chundering (the first new fact of many I learnt about time travel) and continually upset Doug, Al’s pet mouse. However, the sharp focus on the at-risk-words is what truly commands attention.
The Dictionary’s definitions of endangered words are benignly simple as are some of the proffered words, hello and water for example. Thankfully (although at times regrettably), we are not over-flooded with threatened vocabulary which allows Lexi and Al plenty of time to visit ancient cities, meet great inventors and survive harrowing situations like the Battle of Hastings. In short, experience a really ripper world tour full of lumps and bumps and strange old men and curious gadgety golden peg things.
These books are pure essence of adventure for tween readers, enticing them into an historical literary experience they might not even recognise being in; the journey is so littered with quintessential Earls’ irreverent wit it is hard to believe we are learning something so vital, at least I felt I was. The historical detail is phenomenal. Moreover, it’s not just about the words.
As Lexi and Al hone their hunting skills and learn to cope with the time-slipping nausea, we are drawn into the engrossing world of UPPER and lower case, the timeline of printing, letter formation and so much more relating to etymology and philology. Now colour me dull, but I found this anything but dull!
The Lost Hunters involves more words, more battles, and alarmingly, a search for their grandfather who it turns out, is the lost hunter. Fortunately Whidborne’s beguiling illustrations heavily featured throughout the twins’ travels serve to lighten the mood, and push Earl’s acerbic historical observations (and some very gory situations) merrily along, albeit not so merrily for Doug the rat who firmly entrenches himself in my list of favourite characters in this volume. His contributions to sensory detail are pure brilliance.
By the third and final instalment, War of the Word Hunters, Al and Lexi are in full training mode owing to their impending battle with the armed and dangerous grey-robes, rogue hunters determined to thwart word history and so alter its course and irreversibly undo people and their cultures.
The Word Hunters series is not just a collection of etymological explanations and revelations, (although this was enough to captivate me long into the night), it is a gripping, exhilarating quest through time that at times makes your guts churn with dread and discomfort. The rest of the time, they’ll be dancing because you’re laughing so hard.
I loved all the characters: the good, the bad, the alive, the dead and the ones with unpronounceable names. I loved Earls’ wry union of our sometimes-inglorious past and our social-media ridden present. I loved Whidborne’s flamboyant execution of whimsy (and rats). And I loved the serious provoking of thought Word Hunters conjured and the passion for preserving words it stirred up in me. As Grandad Al said, ‘Every one of us is the consequence of a million flukes of history – who met whom and where they went and what they did.’
It is kind of mind boggling but then, so is the Word Hunters series. Perfect for history buffs, word nerds, 9 – 13 year-olds and rat lovers.
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UQP July 2013