Bryant, Jen and Sweet, Melissa (2014). The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
Grade Level Recommendation: 2-5
Topics/Tags: biography, history, English language, word choice, doctor, Caldecott, honor book
The biography of Peter Roget and the story of how he wrote his Thesaurus may sound like the kind of book that will bore late elementary kids to tears. However, I found it to be a beautifully engaging story that I think many children will find very compelling. To make my case, I feel I only need to show one page of the marvelous illustrations:
The story is told about how young Roget took his love of making sense of the world, and used it to make the world a more sensible place. His Thesaurus allowed himself and his readers to always find “the right word” for every instance. Children will be able to read about an ordinary kid while also seeing how his ideas developed.
Illustrator Melissa Sweet used a mixed media style to beautifully layer her illustrations which are based on Roget’s own journals. Her collages are made up of pictures relevant to Roget’s life and the words he spent his life ordering into usable groups. Within many of the page are words layered into the illustrations—words that looked like they were snipped from Roget’s own notebooks.
Author Jen Bryant tells of the young Roget, a boy who moved often and was not able to make many deep friendships. So, to occupy his time, he began writing in journals. He did not draw or write stories, but rather used his precious pages to make lists of words, often with their meaning. Roget was interested in everything, so his lists included everything—ecology, geology, geometry, zoology, physics. It is no surprise that he became a celebrated doctor when he grew up. In addition to being a medical doctor, he gave many lectures on science and inventions. His children eventually convince him to publish his book of lists, called Thesaurus, or “treasure house” in Greek. It was an instant and lasting bestseller.
Each of the book’s page spread is loaded with details for kids to investigate. This book will appeal to children who enjoy
- drawing and art,
- the sounds of language,
- putting things in order,
In addition to the text, the author provides a “List of Principal Events” that include events from Roget’s life as well as what was happening in history at that same time. Both the author and illustrator include a note to the readers about their work on this story and the book concludes with sources and books “for further reading.” Even the end papers are so beautifully illustrated as to warrant many happy minutes of perusal.
This book is so affirming of childhood hobbies as a means to a creative future, that I believe children will read this book and approach their own hobbies with more zeal and aspiration. However, because of this book’s topic and placement in the nonfiction section, I am afraid that it will quickly become lost in the stacks. I think that it will be more likely to find its way into children’s (and teachers’) hands if it is displayed face out. The cover is attractive and the Caldecott medal shouts “read me! I’m awesome!”
- After reading the story, have kids make a list of some of their own hobbies
- Have kids choose one hobby and write as many different words associated with that hobby that they can think of. After they have exhausted their own mind, have them look through Roget’s Thesaurus to see how many more words are in his list.
- Kids might enjoy illustrating one of Roget’s entries with pictures of animals, objects, or even word art.
- Have kids make a timeline of their own life events similar to the one at the end of The Right Word about Roget’s life. Have them guess what kind of education, career and family they might have.
Bryant, Jen and Sweet, Melissa (2008). A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos William. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
The same author/illustrator team joined up to create this biography, also a Caldecott winner.
Davis, Kathryn Gibbs and Ford, Gilbert (2014). Mr. Ferris and His Wheel. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
This book tells the story about how a man took his dream and made history.