CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 11. . . .November 13, 2009
Camp Fossil Eyes: Digging for the Origins of Words.
Mark Abley. Illustrated by Kathryn Adams.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2009.
131 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $19.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-180-8 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55451-181-5 (hc.).
English language-Etymology-Juvenile fiction.
English language-Etymology-Juvenile literature.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Vikki VanSickle.
Later in the afternoon I found the fossil for sockeye. Noah said it was su-key, meaning "red fish" in the language of some of the Salish Indians who still live in the Pacific Northwest. I used to wonder why a creature with no feet would be named after socks. Now I know: it's just an accident of spelling.
How did salary evolve from salt? Or Lady from loaf-maid? Etymology seems to be a hot topic these days in Canadian children's nonfiction, with both Tundra and Annick featuring two new titles on the history of the English language this season. Camp Fossil Eyes covers a lot of ground in an accessible, but not entirely successful format.
The book is presented as a series of e-mails from a pair of teenage siblings who are sent to Camp Fossil Eyes, where words take on the form of rocks waiting to be discovered in a rocky terrain referred to as the badlands. At Camp Fossil Eyes, the campers spend their days digging up words and learning about the history of the English language.
At first, 15-year-old Jill Boswell is miserable and has no interest in taking part in the dig. Her younger brother, Alex, takes to camp right away. Once in awhile, the author includes e-mails from the kids' counsellors and notes from the camp director. By the end of the book, both of the Boswells are smitten with etymology and are begging to come back next year.
Although the information in the book is varied and interesting, the book suffers from a weak plot and an unsuccessful framing device. The voices and characterization of Jill and Alex feel forced and rely heavily on stereotypes, (the too-cool-for-school mopey teenage girl and her nerdy younger brother), which is more off-putting than engaging.
Author Mark Abley does a good job of choosing words from different language groups and eras. He goes beyond the usual suspects (Latin, Saxon, Greek), including the extinct language of Old Norse and languages from indigenous peoples of North America and Australia. His word selection has contemporary relevance, exploring the roots and evolution of words such as umpire, nickname, parka, bikini, and weird, to name a few.
Abley is at his strongest in the sections "From the Desk of Dr. James Murray," in which short histories of various words are presented in the form of a memo from the camp director. His writing is clear, active, and free of the clumsy characterizations that taint the email sections.
Camp Fossil Eyes is nicely laid out and enhanced by Kathryn Adams' spot illustrations which break up the text and bring a lot of fun to the page. Overall, I enjoyed the information in the book, but found myself wishing it had been presented in a different format.
Recommended with reservations.
Vikki VanSickle has an MA in Children's Literature from the University of British Columbia. She is a writer and manager of The Flying Dragon Bookshop in Toronto, ON.
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