TITLE: The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus
Author: Jen Bryant
Illustrator: Melissa Sweet
Publisher: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (2014)
Two of my favorite photos I have of my Dad involves him reading with a child. In one photo he is reading to my baby nephew, probably something like Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb. His face is animated and engaged, as is my nephew's 1-year old face. It was always like that with my Dad, diving into a book headfirst. Nothing else mattered until the end of the book. The second photo involves me as a teenager, and it's telling you something that I as a teenager would happily sit next to Dad looking at a book. That book was most likely something like The Story of English, one of my Dad's favorites. Any time you saw my Dad reading by himself, it was often with a non-fiction book about words or about places. Sometimes it would be an atlas. Sometimes it would be Roget's Thesaurus. I imagined that like other reference companies like World Book or Oxford, "Roget" referred to a faceless company that I would probably never learn anything about. I carried my mindlessness about Roget well into my forties, until my mind was blown open by this book.
The title of this book is enough to tell you: there was a real man called Roget, and he made a thesaurus. What kind of man was he then? Was he like my father, with his nose in a book and poring over things quietly in his mind? Did he think of words all day and feverishly jot them down while he stood in the supermarket line? Did he have little labels all over his house that not only named common household items but provided synonyms for them? Was his toilet paper otherwise used for lists and lists and more lists, so much so that he had to find an alternative to rolled up toilet paper itself?
All these questions and more popped into my mind simultaneously once I knew that Roget was a real person, perhaps because of my childhood experiences with my father. From the very first to the very last endpaper (see my copy of the last endpaper that I have framed) this book is packed with lists and labels, drawings and diagrams. Starting with a simple timeline of Roget's life and ending with a more fleshed out version of the same, in between the story is told in words, pictures and lists. Pictures that look like lists, stories that look like pictures, and big long sentences that are written list-like from top to bottom all add to the wonder of this book. Tiny details in this book make it a pleasure to re-read. You could read it quickly, or slowly. You could have it as a coffee table book to pick up every now and then to study (like my Dad). Every time you read it, or read it to a child, everyone is likely to pick up something new each time.
In some ways this is a book for adults. The author's note and illustrator's note at the end are written in sophisticated language that would not likely speak to a younger audience. However the story and layout are so engaging for a broad range of children. Those most likely to love this book are children who have discovered the power of words. From a young age children realize that language is a tool. From the simple demand: "Ice-cream!" and the imploring plea "Please, pretty please with cherries on top?" to the complex negotiation "I could use some extrinsic motivation to clean my room, mom", some kids know more than others that words are their keys to discovering (and creating) their world. This book tells the story of another little kid like that, who built his world around the words that were his friends.
The story is a simple comparison between the two mountains you can see on the cover of the book. One mountain has been created over a long time by mother nature, and the other has been created in less than an afternoon by a girl, Elizabeth, using her bucket and spade. Most pages follow a predictable pattern - the left page tells the story of the towering old mountain, the right tells the story of Elizabeth's sand mountain down on the beach. The little girl builds up her mountain to be almost as tall as herself, and she is justifiably proud of her effort. When the rain comes to pound down on the big mountain, it flattens out Elizabeth's mountain as well. The sudden rain shower doesn't last long, and neither do Elizabeth's tears, as she starts from scratch again.
I like this book for its simplicity and a description of the physical world that readers by themselves will have begun to discover. The comparison of the big mountain and the little mountain rarely seems forced, although it will take some thinking (or talking with adults) for the reader to figure out that the "new earth mountain" that Elizabeth is walking on has not changed itself in the same time frame as the book. The symmetry of the book has a real-time feel to it, although there are certainly cues in the text to explain that mountains are made over millions of years. The lining up of the left and right pictures is very clever in some ways, but the continuation of the lines may suggest a real-time comparison to some young readers.
The colors are really nice - the earthy tones of nature and the clean, crisp white + primary colors of childhood. I found myself a little distracted by the white strip of page along the bottom, on which the text appears in all of its symmetry. It is apparent that the text is trying to stay away from the imagery and highlight the symmetry of the picture, however the whiteness of that strip seems like a lazy choice. I'm not an artist, but I found myself wishing they had come up with a more creative way of presenting the text - even if only to put it on an earthier toned background. This is an older book (1988) and I find myself wondering if it were to be published today - would different design choices be made?
All in all, I think this is a great book for parents and children to read together after a nice day at the beach or even in a sandpit. Although the story is not an exciting barrel of laughs, this simple storyline will appeal to children who have a fascination with the natural world.
Sharing my depression with President Lincoln and hearing how it could fuel my greatness has made me something of a collector of Lincoln picture books. There are a lot, and I don't buy every one I see, but this one asked me to buy it and so I graciously agreed. I knew about a dream President Lincoln had told people about - it was a recurring dream and he'd had it the night before he was assassinated. The story was interesting to me and so I was interested to see how it could be a children's book.
Lane Smith has a very stylized illustration style that suits President Lincoln quite well, especially when you consider that in this story, the subject is Ghost Lincoln. The long, pale, gaunt face is perfect for the troubled former President, and the many angles in this book deftly draw the eye from one side of the page to the other. The canvas for each picture seems cracked, giving the pictures an antique feel, and the occasional burst of colour breaks through the muted tones and makes the whole piece visually appealing, keeping the reader moving forward through the story.
A strange little quirk of this story is the inclusion of dogs of past Presidents who refused to go into the room where Lincoln's ghost hung out. The dogs of past Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan are shown slinking away from the fateful room. Since the book was published in 2012 I also looked for President Barack Obama's dog Bo in this line-up but was disappointed. Bo was the only POTUS Pet I had heard of, and it took me a while to search out whose dogs Fala, Yuki and Rex were. Nonetheless, I felt the dogs offered an enticing way for children to engage in the story, and an opportunity for parents and children to find out together.
The story goes that a little girl named Quincy who is on a tour of the Whitehouse finds Lincoln's ghost, leaning over the Gettysburg Address. He looked very worried, which makes Quincy feel sorry for him so she attempts to talk to him and cheer him up. Children have an amazing talent for seeking out those who need them, and I just love how Quincy pursues Ghost Lincoln (despite his attempts to walk through walls to escape from her). I also like President Lincoln's attempts at humor, which I also recognized from non-fiction accounts of his life. Depressed people often shirk away the blues with a joke, putting a brave face on what only small children can see through. The pages that contain jokes also contain the aforementioned bursts of colour, a metaphor for how we all can affect our mood through human interaction.
Quincy takes Ghost Lincoln outside of the Whitehouse for the first time in years, and shows him how much the United States has changed. The two friends take a flying tour over the land: Lincoln did the flying and Quincy answered the questions. Here's where the text becomes problematic for me. "Are the states united?" asks Ghost Lincoln. "Yes, that worked out fine", replies Quincy. "And equality for all?" asks Lincoln. The little girl's answer: "That's working out too," she said. "It's getting better all the time". This is where I did a double take and wondered, is equality working out? It might be getting better when compared with slavery and the civil rights era over time, but is it getting better all the time? In addition, is it a bit ironic that a little African American girl seems to be giving President Lincoln the A-OK on the issue of equality?
Visually, I don't think the picture gives any easy answers to this question. The Statue of Liberty image is partially in shadow, and the boy in the window doesn't look particularly happy or unhappy. You can only see the shadow of Ghost Lincoln and Quincy, but from previous pages you know that she is African American, and here she is, clearly telling President Lincoln that it's all working out. On the next page, she does admit to some "fussing and fighting" among fellow men, but the little graphic of a chair being thrown out the window of congress does little to elaborate on what the fussing and fighting might be about. While it may be a deliberate choice not to make the conflict seem too severe, I think the weakness in this book lies in its whitewashing of not only black history, but the current state of institutionalized racism in the USA.
Back to those dogs. I wondered if the introduction of Bo as a presidential pet might have illustrated that yes, now the United States does have a black President, things have come a long way since Lincoln was assassinated by someone who would rather kill and be killed than let slaves be free. I wondered also if the words could have been tweaked slightly, something like "It's getting better all the time, although we've still got a way to go" (take out the reference to "working out"). I freely admit that I don't have any answers for this book - I am filled with only questions.
At the end of the book, Lincoln sails away on the boat from his dreams, and he is smiling. He has confirmed for himself that things are good in America. The founding fathers would be proud. America has planted a flag on the moon. Lincoln has only very briefly touched on equality (which was kind of a big deal for him during his Presidency) and flown quickly forward onto safer topics. I feel like this book collaborates with safely complacent white people to tell a convenient story to children, that racism is "working out" in America. It's a missed opportunity, and one that makes me sad.
At the very least I do think this book is a call to a conversation. I like the way the humor of the text lends itself to Lane Smith's art. I like that some of the elements of the book seem based in past evidence, such as Lincoln's dream itself. I would hope that readers of this book are able to take from this book what they want from this story - and something more. I hope that others (like Lincoln himself) have questions, and that talking about this book with kids will help them deepen their understanding of an imperfect history and a troubled president.
My teenaged daughter has a lot on her mind right now too. Nasty grown up things were getting in her way as well, so I invited her onto the sofa to hear this book. It's OK. It's perfectly acceptable to read picture books aloud to teenagers if they will let you. It's even OK to blog about it if you're sure that teenager never reads your blog. Because if there's one thing I know about picture books, is that they can be therapy for any age of human being. And this one is for any age of human being who would like to take a long, long nap.
I read this book aloud in the type of soothing voice you would expect from a mother to her child, and I am 100% sure that in the olden days, when my kids were little this book would have been a terrific bedtime book. It rhymes, kind of Dr Seuss style but with words like "naptacular" and "Nuzzledome" that are constantly suggestive of sleep. The main character, sleepy sloth Snuggleford Cuddlebun takes her special blanket, pillow, journal and favourite bedtime book to the Nuzzledome by bus, where she sets herself up in a hammock to sleep through a music festival of sleep inducing bands.
I would have enjoyed this book far more thoroughly if I were not Australian. I'm sorry to have to say this, but I was rudely awakened from my own slumbering narration by the following line: "All the best sleepers in Snoozeville are there, like wildcats and wombats and koala bears". Click here if you don't know why that made me cringe. I get that this is a book for an American audience. And I get that some people say "koala bear". However, every time I see this I want to coin new phrases like "coyote dog" or "bison cow" to use with my American friends. Later on in the book the story also refers to a poet mole who "imitates rain with his didgeridoo", and I just don't want to start up about how little the sound of rain resembles the sound of didgeridoo....
All in all, I find this book delightful, so much so that I read it to my other teenaged daughter when I had a chance. And although I quite ruined the rhyming scheme, I left a poignant space where the "bear" once was, which ultimately allowed us to share a smile, while also sharing a blanket this cold winter night in front of the fire, before listening to the didgeridoo. Mmmmmmm. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
An Australian who lived in Japan with my bicultural family now living in the USA, I believe that there are more different realities than there are books to be written.