The Right Word by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet, Reviewed by Donalyn Miller
“Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”—Nathaniel Hawthorne
I learned the power of words early. Whining, breaking my things, interrupting me while I was reading, my little sisters were the bane of my childhood existence. I knew I couldn’t pinch them or lock them in a closet, so I used my vocabulary to exact my revenge—calling them dolts, nitwits, and nettlesome prats whenever they pushed me too far. I still remember my sister, Abbie, complaining to our mother, “Tell her to stop using words I don’t know!”
I was a voracious reader and each book I read added more words to my horde—“radiant” from Charlotte’s Web, “chortle” from Alice in Wonderland, “nerd” from Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo. Words comforted, delighted, and inspired me. A life spent reading is a life spent addicted to words.
On my sixteenth birthday, my stepdad gave me a bound volume of Shakespeare and a paperback copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. I dedicated an hour each day to reading them—30 minutes for Will and 30 minutes for the next section of the thesaurus—adding words like “multitudinous” and “bombastic” to my treasure trove.
While I valued the words Roget’s packed volume gave me, I admit I never gave its creator or the book’s origins much thought. Thankfully, Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet have brought Peter Mark Roget’s tremendous accomplishment into the light with their newest picture book collaboration, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (Eerdmans, 2014).
Born in 1799, Englishman Roget spent his childhood making lists as a coping mechanism–creating order in his challenging life. Bookish and shy, Peter spent hours organizing lists of words using his own taxonomy—grouping words by their meanings. Roget was a Renaissance man—an accomplished scientist and inventor, as well as a writer. (He also invented the slide rule and the first pocket chess set.)
Throughout his long life, Roget continued collecting and sorting words until finally publishing the first thesaurus in 1852. This remarkable book has remained in print ever since. Thesaurus means “treasure house” and Roget wanted his book of words to share the riches that words provide to all, “I want everyone to be able to use my word book, not just doctors, politicians, and lawyers, but cobblers, fishmongers, and factory workers.”
The Right Word brings three geniuses together at the top of their game—Bryant, Sweet, and Peter Roget. Jen Bryant presents a humanizing portrait of Roget revealing his quiet spirit and brilliant mind. Introducing Roget as a child before moving into his adult accomplishments gives young readers an opportunity to connect with Peter.
Melissa Sweet’s stunning illustrations festooned with leaves, birds, ledger pages, and words ribbons burst open like overstuffed museum cabinets—revealing delight after delight. Readers will love poring through the illustrations—examining each word woven throughout Sweet’s collages.
What a perfect book to introduce generations of readers to the power of words and spark interest in Roget’s life and work. What a gift. I will never look at a thesaurus the same way, again.
Glimpse into Melissa’s Sweet’s creative processes designing the illustrations for The Right Word in this interview at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
**Thanks to everyone who responded to my call on Facebook for your favorite words. I have included all of them in the word cloud at the top of this post.