The story told in the text is a sensitive and colorful biography of Peter Mark Roget—his childhood, his love of lists, his interest in science, his work as a medical doctor, and, of course, the thesaurus his name became synonymous with.
And that story is enhanced by the stories told in the illustrations, which present a collage of paintings, drawings, realistic objects, and handwriting fragments as additional clues about Roget’s life and personality. These clues are what give the book its layers of meaning. I think this is why Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet are listed not as “author” and “illustrator,” but almost as co-authors.
Particularly for introverts, shy kids, reflective types
Not only is The Right Word the kind of book that an introverted child could study quietly for hours, but Peter Roget is a protagonist that introverts can relate to. Young Peter is a shy child; his widowed mother has to move the family often, and Peter finds it hard to make friends. He spends time with books instead. Peter’s habit of making lists becomes a way to organize a confusing world, and his obsession with words is a reflection of his desire to express himself well.
Reading together, in a group, with each other
I enjoyed reading the book myself, and I learned a lot about Mr. Roget. (Did you know he invented the pocket chess set?) Then I had my 9-year-old niece read it—she had broken her arm at the beginning of the summer, and I thought she might be looking for things to occupy her mind and her time. As it turns out, she wasn’t. I don’t think her cast slowed her down at all!
So I never got the opportunity to read the book with my niece and study the illustrations and discuss all the layers of meaning. And that might be the best way to read this book. If I were using it in a school setting, I might make it part of an art class rather than a reading class, since much of the story is conveyed through images.
My niece did write up a little book report for me. In general, she liked Peter Roget because, she says, “We both love to read. And write.” All of her observations were about the literal story told in the text of the book (which she thought was too young for her); without some guided discussion about the story told within the illustrations, she didn’t naturally look for those layers of meaning.
My summary, synopsis, recap
The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus is a good book for children about 7 years old, particularly if they need a shy hero who successfully and creatively navigates a world that often feels overwhelming. Parents, art teachers, and aunts might find the book provides opportunities to develop observation, deduction, and discussion skills with kids of all ages. The book is available from Eerdmans.com (the publisher), or clicking on the image will take you to its page on Amazon.com.
Related review: Quiet