Friday, December 5, 2014

Two Books about Words

For as long as I can remember, there have always been a dictionary and thesaurus sitting on my desk, just waiting to be used.  The editions have been updated and replaced, but they are always there and like best friends, they got me through elementary, junior high, high school, college, MA and, finally, PhD.  One Christmas, when my Kiddo was old enough, I gave her her own dictionary and thesaurus, and they have been her constant companions ever since.

Naturally, I found these two books to be very interesting.  I hope you do, too.

Noah Webster & his Words by Jeri Chase Ferris, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch

So many times, I am sitting here writing a post and  find myself needing to double check the definition of a word I am about to use.  So I go to my trusty dictionary and look it up.  What would I ever do with my Webster's Dictionary?  But who is this Webster guy?

Born in Connecticut in 1758, by the time Noah Webster was a boy of 12, his father wanted him to become a farmer and follow in his footsteps.  But Noah didn't want to farm, he wanted to go the school and study.  Luckily for the world, his father was persuaded to send Noah off to Yale to study Latin and Greek when he turned 15.

During the American Revolution, Noah taught school, but all he and his students had were some old schoolbooks from England.  When the war ended, Noah decided to write an American speller, a book that would no longer use British spellings- for example, favour would be spelled favor, dropping the British u.  Not satisfied even after publishing an American grammar book, after marrying, Noah went to Paris, London and Cambridge to study 20 languages while collecting and defining all kinds of words, including where they originally came from.  Eventually, this work became Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language.

Noah Webster and his Words is a wonderful multilayered biography and vocabulary builder.  In what could easily have become a dry, dull biography, Ferris has tempered this picture book for old readers with humor and historical details from Webster's time, creating instead an interesting and very readable book.  But, vocabulary builder, you ask?  Yes, indeed.  The book introduces the reader to new words and their meanings right in the text, for example: Noah was EC-STAT-IC [adj.: filled with pleasure; delighted; thrilled]!  No flipping back and forth from text to back-of-the-book glossary here.

There is, however, information timeline that parallels Webster's life and the same years in American history, as well as a nice bibliography and websites for the curious, as even a bit more information about Noah Webster.

The illustrations do much from this text in visually presenting Noah life history and work.  Using fun, whimsical, cartoon-like mixed media illustrations, Vincent X. Kirsch has given Noah a very large head,  in comparison to his body and making me think that perhaps it was big because it was so full of words, but also extending the playfulness of the text.

America was still a young country when Webster began his work and, through his speller, grammar and dictionary, he certainly played an important part in giving the United States her own word personality.

An extensive discussion and activity guide is available for Noah Webster and his Words HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 4-8, but I have to disagree and recommend it for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jennifer Fisher Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

A dictionary is good for giving us the definition of a word, but what if we need to find just the right word for what we want to say?  For that, we turn to a book of antonyms and synonyms called the thesaurus and we owe a rousing thanks to Peter Mark Roget.

Born in London in 1779, Peter's father died in 1783 when Peter was only 4 years old.  The family moved often and Peter found it hard to make friends because of that, and it wasn't helped by his shyness.  But he found comfort in books, and later, he brought order to his life by making lists that classified and organized words and concepts, for example, things that fly, things in the garden.  Peter was only 8 when he wrote his first book of lists; with his lists, "the world itself clicked into order."

Later, Peter would go to Scotland and study medicine, becoming a well-known, well-respected physician, but he never stopped creating new lists of concepts and words.  Finally, in 1852, Peter published his first thesaurus.  It became an immediate best seller.

 Webster defines the word thesaurus as a book in which words that have the same or similar meanings are grouped together.  But Roget picked the word thesaurus for his lists based in the Latin meaning of "treasure-house." And both are right.

The Right Word is a treasure house of biographical information about Peter Roget.  As a physician, teacher, writer of scholarly articles and family man, it seems amazing that he found any time at all to keeps his passion for making lists going, but his love of words and order were clearly too compelling for his to not do it.  And Peter succeeded in making it a book that anyone can use, not just scholars.

Melissa Sweet's incredible watercolor, mixed media and collage illustrations are a perfection reflection of the text and of Peter Roget's life.   Her playfulness with the words and lists, and with the biographical events of this quiet man's life add a clarity despite their seeming disorder - but that's the point, isn't it.  Life is disorderly, but ordered in Roget's lists.  Sweet's artwork never fails to amaze me and if parents or teachers read this beautiful picture book for older readers with young people, be sure to linger over and discuss each illustration to appreciate their full impact, and don't forget the endpapers.

At the end of The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus is a list of the important events in Roget's life, an Author's Note and Illustrator's Note that should not be skipped and a bibliography, suggestions for further reading as a list of quoted sources.

A classroom guide is available for The Right Word HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

These are books 9 and 10 of my Nonfiction Picture Book Reading Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy


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    1. I loved The Right Word, but then again I was one of those "weird" kids who treasured my thesaurus. I think it will take some hand selling to get kids interested, but it's truly a remarkable book. I don't think there is anything Melissa Sweet has been involved with that isn't just wonderful.

    2. I think you may be right about the hard sell, but hopefully books like this will help kids overcome that. They are great for classroom or home schooling, so that part is good and the art in both is compelling. I agree, Melissa Sweet does not wrong, and what an incredible imagination she has for getting her illustraions so spot on.


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