Friday, November 14, 2014

The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus

As a reader, I have always loved words - how they are created, what they mean.  I love that Frances and Gloria are beginning to learn those skills too - how words strung together can make magic happen in your heart and imagination.  Frances and I have been reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and she loves it.  She always sighs when we stop.  She tells me that it's "just getting interesting".  And Gloria listens intently, and when we come to a word she's curious about, she makes me stop reading until I've shown her the word and defined it.  Words can bring us together.  At work, my job has shifted away from librarianship and into IT.  But I'm still involved with the creation of a thesaurus for the agency.  Words never desert us.

That is never more evident than in The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus.  Peter Roget is a very young boy when his father dies.  After that, he and his family move around quite often, which leaves him lonely.  But what keeps him from feeling so lonely are his books.  "There were always plenty of them around, and he never had to leave them behind."  And eventually Roget begins to create lists of these words.  "Words, Peter learned, were powerful things.  And when he put them in long, neat rows, he felt as if the world itself clicked into order."  Eventually, Roget realized the power in having a list of exactly the right word for the right situation and decided to create one himself to help people with just that problem.

The first compilation of word lists Roget created contained more than 15,000 words!  He was also a doctor, tinkered with inventions, and tutored in a wide range of subjects when he was a young man.  But his passion was for that book of word lists.  So he kept improving it.  When it was finally published in 1852, people wanted it immediately.  It was ultimately a successful book, but Roget continued to strive to make that thesaurus better and better.

I have to admit that I am a huge Melissa Sweet fan.  One of the years I served on the Cybils Picture Book Nonfiction judging panel, we were lucky enough to consider two of her titles during our considerations - Balloons Over Broadway and Mrs. Harkness and the Panda.  I adore her whimsical collages and, the way she creates them so thoughtfully.  When I saw this book at the library, and realized that the text was written by Jen Bryant, I knew I had to read it.  Bryant has created some poetic, beautifully written biographies.  This title wowed me just as much as I suspected.  Whoever came up with the idea of having these two collaborate on this book was a genius!

From the very first page, Sweet has filled the collages with words and letters.  The title page spread features a structure built with wooden blocks.  Interspersed with the traditional blocks are blocks that feature letters in different sizes and fonts.  Letters are incorporated from the very beginning.  The title block is created on lined cards, with cataloging information next to the title, author and other information.  So right at the start, Sweet emphasizes the text and put importance on Roget's beloved words.  The very last pages, really the endpapers, are a recreation by Sweet of Roget's first thesaurus.  It is an amazing way to complete the journey, with a new appreciation of the work that went into creating the thesaurus.

Bryant also often allows Sweet's illustrations to take center stage.  Bryant describes Roget's baby sister Annette in this way: "Baby Annette slept in Mother's arms, a small pink blossom against a wall of black."  It is poetic, encompassing the fragility of a baby, and Annette's humanity in contrast to her grieving mother's black clothing.  The illustration is just as starkly poignant as the text, with Peter peering out of a coach window and a pink blossom cascading down the page against a background of velvety black. Across from that illustration is a graphic showing the family's travel from Bern, Switzerland to London, England after Peter's father died.

The back matter is just as fascinating and exquisite as the rest of the book Roget began by making a list of the main events in his life, entitled "List of Principal Events".  Bryant takes this list one step further and adds in world events to give Roget's life historical context.  There are also author and illustrator notes, where Bryant and Sweet describe how Roget's work inspired them.  Finally, there is a page that includes a selected bibliography, a list of titles for additional reference and the source of quotations in the text.  The back matter helps solidify this glorious book as a work of art and nonfiction.  I learned so much from this book about a man whose book I had often used but never marveled over.  Roget's thesaurus is a work of imagination as well as classification.

The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus .  Jen Bryant; Melissa Sweet.  Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2014.

Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

1 comment:

  1. As one of the other people involved in creating the agency-wide thesaurus, I can tell you it's not nearly as interesting as Roget's! It is a very challenging process trying to figure out relationships and preferred terms. Plus, trying to take into account what the staff wants. This process given me insight into the challenges faced by Roget and other thesaurus creators. At the very least, I have a newfound respect for them. Or is it sympathy?