Who would have thought the story of Peter Mark Roget’s life could make for such an exciting (or … soul-stirring, sensational, provocative) story? Jen Bryant has accomplished a stellar feat with The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, surely in the running for the 2015 Caldecott Medal due to Melissa Sweet’s spectacular illustrations.
Many a child will be fascinated with The Right Word from the very beginning, as even the end papers display a vivid collage of vintage maps, diagrams, images of plants and animals, text excerpts, and the leather spines of old science books. Then there’s the playful title page, constructed of myriad alphabet blocks, interspersed with multicolored rectangular blocks and small, pleasing paintings of the natural world.
Bryant goes on to reveal the principal events of Roget’s life, focusing on his deliciously child-appealing craving for particularity. Sweet paints an engaging scene of the child sitting on a bright rug, surrounded by his drawings, books, and blocks. We learn how he compiled lists of Latin words, lists of favorite words relating to the weather, to the four elements, to the garden.
As he wandered the streets and parks of London, he reveled in words, their supple variety and their multitude of meanings: “If only all the ideas in the world could be found in one place, then everyone would have one book where they could find the best word, the one that really fit. Peter carried this idea with him like a secret treasure.” Appropriately, when his book of lists was published in 1852, it was called Roget’s Thesaurus, a word that means “treasure house” in Greek.
Educators who want to inspire children to enrich their writing by using a thesaurus, whether in print or online format, can do no better than to introduce the practice with this picture book. While adults can use it either one-on-one or with a group of younger ones (ages 8 and older), teachers should seize this title to enliven even middle-school classes. After spending time with The Right Word, readers of any age might be led to look at the thesaurus with a fresh sense of wonder and appreciation.
See also …
my previous post on Firefly July and the award-winning biography A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, also written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet.