Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What's That You Say

It's easy to see the importance of quotations, phrases and words when entering my home as they hold places of prominence on my walls.  When reading or writing on my laptop several synonym tabs are always open as is an online dictionary.  Words are powerful and permanent.

Though many can have similar meanings, each one depicts a slightly different slant depending on the context in which it is used.  Collaborators, author Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet, whose previous titles, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Caldecott Honor winner, 2009) and A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin (2014 Schneider Family Book Award, 2014 Robert F. Sibert Honor winner, 2014 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award) have returned to depict the life of Peter Mark Roget in The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (Eerdmans Books For Young Readers). Their collected letters and images provide a stunning portrait of a man whose accomplishments will continue to assist others for generations and generations to come.

Peter snuggled deeper into Uncle's lap as the carriage clattered through the valleys of Switzerland.

The death of Peter's father was the beginning of many moves for him, his younger sister Annette, their mother and uncle.  By the age of eight he was beginning his first book, a book of lists.  His mother worried about him constantly especially all his scribbling as she called his writing.  His lists gave him a feeling of contentment and security.

Drawn to the field of science in his teens Peter's favorite book was by another list maker, Linnaeus.  At the age of fourteen Peter entered medical school when his family relocated to Edinburgh, Scotland.  Within five years of dedicated studying, his education was complete.  (I know readers are going to find this nugget of information as astonishing as I did.)

On the advice of his uncle, Peter tutored and toured in France with two teenage sons of a wealthy gentleman prior to beginning his medical practice in Manchester, England.  He was a doctor by day and a creator of lists by night.  Several years later Peter continued as a medical doctor enlarging his practice in London, England.  Always rather shy he began to share his wealth of knowledge through lectures.

From a first draft of a book of word lists in 1805 to the publication of the first Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition in 1852 at the age of seventy-three, Roget married at forty-two and had two children, a daughter and a son.  Although a highly respected member of prestigious societies affiliated with fields of science, Peter Mark Roget continued to maintain his focus on his word collecting.  For his commitment, perseverance and devotion we will always be grateful, appreciative and glad.

Before the narrative begins Jen Bryant includes a quote from Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie, illustrating an entire page, making reference to the importance of a thesaurus in Captain Hook's cabin.  Opposite this is a list beginning with Peter Mark Roget's birth date and the word BORN.  A series of words, twenty-one in number, depicting the growth and aging of a man ends with DIED and his death date.  These two introductions to this biography and this man, displayed as if he had written them himself, are clever and utterly perfect.  

Into essential portions of Roget's life, written with intimate details gleaned from research, Bryant places repeated references to his love of books and learning.  She ties these events together with his continuous search for the right word.  Conversations appearing in speech bubbles in addition to the story line contribute to the authenticity and sense of bearing witness to this man's greatness.  Here is a single sample.

The lists helped him remember his lessons.  They also gave him something to do when Mother peppered him with questions.

Although, to be honest, Peter thought fine wasn't quite the right word.
(Readers are treated to a list of all the words which could be used instead of fine and several meaning a little less than fine.)

On the book case the open volume pictured on the front is extended to the back in a solid color with a blurb centered in the back.  Melissa Sweet's technique of using watercolor, collage and mixed media fans out from the open pages, objects symbolizing all the many words collected by Peter Mark Roget.  The opening endpapers are vertical strips of text, pages and spines from books.  A list of Roget's one thousand words with a shortened plan of classification covers the closing endpapers.

With every single page turn we see Sweet's mastery displayed.  Each item in her illustrations is carefully chosen to compliment the author's text and the focus of Roget's life.  The title page is covered in blocks stacked one on top of the other, displaying letters and chosen subjects, replicating the building of the lists.  Everywhere you look the detail is exquisite. 

One of my favorite illustrations is that highlighting the text quoted above.  Roget is pictured in silhouette thinking fine encased in a bubble.  His other fourteen words are included in distinctive fonts on various papers and even leaves.  Melissa Sweet literally pieces together people's lives with her visuals.  To see these in their original form would be grand, spectacular, marvelous and breathtaking.

I highly recommend, endorse and suggest everyone read and obtain a personal copy of The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus written by Jen Bryant with illustrations by Melissa Sweet.  Classrooms and libraries will want more than one.  A two page List of Events mingles dates of Roget's life with world events giving us a broader viewpoint.  Informative and interesting one page author's note and illustrator's note follow.  A selected bibliography, a list for further reading and sources are listed.  

Be sure to visit Jen Bryant's and Melissa Sweet's websites by following the links embedded in their names.  At Jen Bryant's page for this title you will find extra resource links and a discussion guide.  Here is a link to a post at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast hosted by Julie Danielson where Melissa Sweet talks about her process for illustrating this title.  UPDATE:  This book is part of a trifecta on September 16, 2014. Visit the Nerdy Book Club for a review by Donalyn Miller, Watch. Connect. Read. for an interview of Jen Bryant by John Schumacher and sharpread for an interview of Melissa Sweet by Colby Sharp.  UPDATE:  Here is a five question interview of Melissa Sweet at Eerdlings, Official Blog of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.  Here are two brand new videos with Melissa Sweet and Jen Bryant speaking with students about this title. (February 24, 2015)

Don't forget to stop by Alyson Beecher's blog Kid Lit Frenzy for see what other great books have been listed this week for the 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


  1. I always enjoy reading your very detailed book reviews. My daughter and I have been exploring words in the thesaurus - this would be a great picturebook to share with her on how capturing words became both a science and an art.

    1. Good morning, Myra and thank you. I truly believe you and your daughter will enjoy this book. This author and illustrator working together portray people's lives beautifully.

  2. I am really looking forward to reading this book. Like Myra, I can see my daughter loving this title. This author/illustrator team is gold.

    1. I think this book is going to be perfect for you and your daughter, Carrie. And you are so right; this author/illustrator team is indeed gold.