The Lost Language
Junior Library Guild Selection
NCTE Notable Verse Novel
NCTE Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children Recommended Book
How I Came to Write This Book
When I was a child, I read my way through the Golden Book Encyclopedia. In the volume for E I became entranced by the entry on Esperanto, a language created in the late 19th century to be a universal language that could be shared by speakers all over the world. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if everyone in the world could speak the same language! I was wild to find a way that I could start learning Esperanto myself. As the years went by, however, I began to appreciate the amazing diversity of the world’s languages; I no longer valued the search for one single language that everyone in the world could speak. When I learned that Earth’s treasury of languages was becoming increasingly endangered by the forces of globalization, I thought how I would have felt if I had known this as a child. Just as, decades ago, I had wanted to learn Esperanto to promote universal understanding, now I would have wanted to learn an endangered language, to save it from utter extinction. This was the seed from which this book grew.
I decided to write this story in a literary form I’ve long loved but never tried: the verse novel. Writing in free verse invited me to focus special attention on every single word in a way that reflects the importance Betsy (Bumble) and her best friend, Lizard, give to each word of the language they are trying to save.
Writing this book was a labor of love for me. I truly think this may be the best book I’ve ever written.
Sixth-graders Betsy (Bumble) and Liz (Lizard) have been best friends for years, despite Betsy’s mother’s reservations about audacious Lizard’s influence on mild-mannered Betsy, who’s under pressure from her mother to “bloom.” As Betsy’s demanding mother battles with work challenges—she’s a linguistics professor who studies dying languages—Lizard gets a thrilling idea: she and Betsy will learn one of those dying languages and help its survival, assisting Betsy’s mom and proving the value of her project. The girls dive into basic Guernésiais (the old language of the France-adjacent UK isle of Guernsey), but there’s more going on with Betsy’s mother than just work frustrations, and when the family situation erupts it leaves the girls divided and Betsy stunned. Mills writes in free verse here rather than her familiar prose, but her keen insight into dynamics and character remains evident, and the compact, accessible phraseology deftly distills the portrayals. Narrator Betsy is particularly well delineated as somebody who has her own strengths, not always visible to her mother, despite her willingness to let Lizard take the lead, and there’s some gentle illumination of Lizard’s limitations alongside respect for her. Betsy’s family situation is also authentic, with its push-pull dynamic between her easygoing dad and hard-driving mother, and it’s believable that her father’s mishandling of her mother’s suicide attempt—initially lying to Betsy about what happened and then letting the information leak so that Betsy’s classmates know the truth before she does—rocks Betsy almost as much as the incident itself. Ultimately, though, it’s satisfying to see Betsy weather adversity and prove her own strength: “I’m the one who gets to decide/ what blooming means to me.” The author includes an extensive note about dying languages.
– The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books – STARRED REVIEW
An endangered language becomes a metaphor for people struggling to communicate. Betsy is “good at being second.” Her mercurial linguistics professor mother works long hours, studying languages at risk of extinction, and has parental ambitions that sit uneasily on Betsy’s shoulders. Her best friend, Lizard, meanwhile, is a possessive, outspoken, and brittle friend who brooks no opposition. Fortunately, Betsy’s father is a steady, easygoing presence. The two Colorado sixth graders seize upon a plan: They will learn Guernésiais (a language from the Channel Islands with only a couple hundred speakers), get everyone at their middle school speaking it too, and surprise Betsy’s mother with their good deed. The school musical—Betsy is excited to take part, Lizard is disdainful —leads to tension as Betsy considers the high personal cost of their friendship. Through well-drawn characters, this skillfully paced story thoughtfully addresses the need to be truly seen in our important relationships. . . . A sincere exploration of humanly imperfect love.
Reserved Betsy trails in the wake of two domineering women in her life: her mother and her BFF, Lizard. Mom, a career-obsessed linguistics professor, has little time for Betsy or her devoted father. Mom’s not fond of Lizard, whom she (ironically) thinks is too controlling. Betsy is aware of the imbalance in both relationships, but isn’t ready to challenge them yet. In an effort to please Betsy’s mother, the friends launch a club at their middle school to “save” a dying European language. The club fails, but sets Betsy on a path of making new friends. Alienated, Lizard retaliates by revealing to classmates that Betsy’s mother has just attempted suicide. . . . Betsy’s first-person narration is engaging and will speak to the many young readers who feel quashed by stronger personalities all around them. It’s a pivotal moment of acceptance when Betsy’s father observes, “sometimes someone who is quiet/ has their spunk and spirit/ deep inside, like a hidden treasure.” The novel ends on a realistic, satisfying note as Betsy’s family moves forward—together—and she and Lizard reach a new understanding. . . . VERDICT Empowering and heartfelt; recommended for all middle grade collections
– School Library Journal – STARRED REVIEW
Two presumed-white Colorado sixth-grader best friends named Elizabeth—known as “Bumble” and “Lizard,” respectively—navigate their shifting friendship in this tender novel-in-verse by Mills (Zero Tolerance). According to Betsy’s disapproving mother, a workaholic linguistics professor, Liz holds outsize sway in the girls’ relationship. Still, when Lizard decides that she and Bumble should learn a dying language to save it from extinction and impress Bumble’s mother, Bumble eagerly follows her lead. Their attempts prove frustrating, however, when no one else seems interested in their mission. Meanwhile, Bumble lands a nonspeaking role in the school’s production of Alice in Wonderland and finds new friends, making Lizard jealous. When they both experience family crises, a cruel betrayal further threatens the girls’ fragile relationship. Conveyed in the first-person perspective, Bumble’s epiphanies and observations are crystallized through concise language and evocative descriptions (“Her face looks like/ the face in this famous picture/ of a person screaming/... like when you’re in a bad/ dream and you’re trying/ to call for help/ and no sound comes out.”), while her evolving emotions surrounding her parents and Lizard are as eloquently conveyed as her growing understanding of the world.
– Publishers Weekly