February 12, 2015
The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
The Right Word:
Roget and his Thesaurus
by Jen Bryant
illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
As a small boy, Peter, his mother and his baby sister moved frequently. Wherever they went, Peter took his books and his love of learning. When he was eight, he began to write his own book. Unlike many people, he didn’t write stories — either made-up stories or true stories. He wrote lists.
He listed the Latin words his tutor taught him. He listed the Elements, words about the weather and things to do with the garden. Peter quickly learned that finding just the right word to express himself could be a tricky thing. He gathered more and more words, adding them to his book.
As a young man, he went to medical school in Scotland. Although he earned his degree, he was only 19 years old when he graduated. He agreed with his uncle — no one would accept that such a young man was actually a doctor. He had an excellent education, but what else could he do? Peter became a tutor. Only later would he work as a doctor.
He also joined science societies. He gathered with other scientifically minded men and wrote and spoke about his studies.
By this time, other writers had published books of word lists. Peter’s children read these books but assured their father that his was much better. Peter got out his book of word lists. He added to it and eventually published it. Roget’s Thesaurus is still used by writers today.
At first glance, this may seem like a dry topic but Bryant has done a great job of capturing the tension experienced by a shy young man who grew up with a keen mind and an active curiosity. She shows his struggles to express himself but also to learn as much as possible about the world.
The mixed media collages that illustrate the book contain some copies of Peter’s original book but Sweet also used watercolor to add to the word rich images.
The book includes both a note from the author and one from the illustrator as well as a detailed timeline and other information. I was surprised to learn that Peter’s original word lists were not arranged alphabetically like they are today but by topic. And how cool is it that thesaurus translates as treasure room?
Young readers who often struggle for the right word to fill in the blank on a worksheet or to answer an adult’s question will quickly empathize with Peter. Share this book with your class and challenge them to create illustrated word lists of their own.