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.
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.