Book: Noah Webster & His Words
Author: Jeri Chase Ferris
Illustrator: Vincent X. Kirsch
Age Range: 5-8
Noah Webster & His Words, written by Jeri Chase Ferris and illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch, is a picture book biography of the man who compiled the first American dictionary. We learn that Noah was born in 1758, expected to be the next in a long line of Webster farmers. But Noah wanted to be a scholar, and the world is more literate today thanks to his efforts.
The book follows Noah through the major events in his life, as he goes to college, becomes a schoolteacher, starts working on his first speller, marries, and so on. I hadn't realized the patriotic underpinnings of Webster's work prior to reading this book, and found reading about Noah's motivations quite uplifting. Here's the first hint:
"In October 1781, King George's soldiers SURRENDERED [verb: gave up] at Yorktown. The war was over at last! America was free and IN-DE-PEN-DENT [adj.: not controlled by others]. THat gave Noah an idea. He would write the schoolbooks for America, beginning with spelling. "I will write the second Declaration of Independence," Noah wrote to a friend. "An American spelling book!"
I quite like the way Jeri Chase Ferris incorporates dictionary-like definitions right into the text. This both reinforces the subject of the book and makes a fairly text-dense book more accessible to new readers. I also like the way she uses a slightly old-fashioned tone to her writing, to suit the time period. Not so much as to make the book inaccessible to modern kids, but just enough to give a flavor, though the use of words like "Alas". The text is rendered in an old-fashioned-looking font, also, furthering this impression. Even the author and illustrator bios at the end of the book follow these conventions, complete with definitions. This made me smile.
Vincent X. Kirsch's illustrations show somewhat oddly proportioned people (see cover image above), but I think he does capture Noah's scholarly, well-intentioned character. I think that kids will appreciate seeing how Noah ages over time as the book progresses. The muted color scheme also support the historical, bookish feel of the book. The brightest thing on many pages is Noah's blue-backed speller".
I only had one nit about the text. There's a sentence: "Over the next ten years Noah wrote six more schoolbooks for children and had several children of his own." The "several" seemed imprecise in a biography. I had to consult the end matter to see how many children Noah and his wife did have, to satisfy my own curiosity . I'm guessing that the children arrived over more than those ten years, and this was too complex to explain, but it took me out of the story. This is, however, my only complaint about a solid, interesting, well-written book.
A handy, illustrated timeline at the end of the book fills in details for those who are interested in extra facts, and should make Noah Webster & His Words a useful reference title for elementary school kids. A bibliography includes both primary and secondary sources [providing a good opportunity to introduce this concept to kids.]
Noah Webster & His Words is a picture book biography done right, from the choice of an important historical figure to the selection of anecdotes and facts to the choice of fonts. It belongs in primary school libraries and classrooms everywhere. As for me, I gained a new appreciation for Noah Webster, and for the importance of dictionaries in making America the distinct country it is today. Highly recommended!
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: October 23, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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