Mark Abley, the author of one other children’s book (Ghost Cat) and two excellent adult books on language, brilliantly combines his talents in Camp Fossil Eyes, about word origins. Etymology might seem like a hard sell for pre-teens, so Abley introduces his topic through the story of two characters: Jill and her younger brother, Alex, whose parents have sent them to camp in Alberta’s badlands. Instead of dinosaur bones, however, the two are searching for language fossils: the traces of Greek, Latin, Norse, and French (to name just a few sources) from which modern English evolved. (Dr. Murray, the camp’s grey-haired, twinkly eyed director, explains the origin of the camp’s name: it comes from Emerson, who once referred to etymologists as seekers of “fossil poetry.”)
Camp Fossil Eyes is built around a series of e-mails sent from the kids to their parents. Alex, the keener, gets hooked right away and gushes about his discoveries. Jill is won over more slowly, at one point getting lost overnight in the obscure Proto-Indo-European region of the badlands.
The “camp” premise may seem contrived, but it works rather well. Most importantly, it renders tangible one of the book’s central ideas: that getting to the root of some words requires deep digging – “horse” has surprising origins in ancient Sanskrit, for example – while more recent additions, like “podcast,” lie closer to the surface. Kids will no doubt be surprised to learn that words they took to be new-fangled, such as “chatroom,” actually have origins dating back several centuries.
Abley’s other key point is that the English language is still in a constant state of flux and evolution. As one who thoroughly embraces this dynamism, he is perhaps the ideal person to present the topic to a generation that picks up new words as easily as it does colds.