Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Word Hunters: The Curious Dictionary

Word Hunters: The Curious Dictionary by Nick Earls, illustrated by Terry Whidborne (University of Queensland Press)
PB RRP $14.95
Reviewed by Jo Antareau

Hold onto your hats – it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Twelve-year-old Al is a quiet history buff; his twin Lexi is anything but. When Al and Lexi Hunter stumble on an old dictionary, they are catapulted back through time and space, with only some mysterious pegs as clues.

This is a time-travel adventure with a lexical twist. The twins lurch between eras and countries – they witness the Battle of Hastings, visit Thomas Edison’s laboratory and crew a whaling ship – and soon discover the link between each point in history is the turning point for a word. They witness the situation which forced a word to gain a new meaning. After hearing the new use for an old word, are able to open a portal and travel further back to the previous time the word’s meaning changed, until its debut in English.

The first in a new series, this well researched novel is for readers aged 9 and up, and designed to appeal to the word-nerd in all of us. Beautifully presented with an embossed cover, Terry Whidbourne’s detailed line illustrations bring the story to life.

Word Hunters introduces readers to the concept that language evolves over the generations. Earls was inspired to use etymology as the background for an adventure.

My reservation, however, is that some children in the targeted age group may lose interest in the earlier part of the story, as Lexi and Al merely witness events, and do not actively participate in the action around them, other than to escape. For example, upon hearing the word “hello” used as a sound-beacon in a dark and choppy sea, they are promptly whisked away from impending danger. Some readers may feel cheated that it is never revealed whether two whaling boats collide (although presumably, some crew survived, in order for the word to continue). However, Al and Lexi do actively solve problems in later escapades, so I suggest that parents encourage kids to continue.

The crux of the story, that words are disappearing from history, and that the twins’ own long-missing grandfather may be trapped in an earlier epoch, is revealed in the latter half, and paves the way for a sequel.

A full set of teacher’s notes is available from UQP for $14.95.

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