Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Children's Book Review: 'Noah Webster & His Words' by Jeri Chase Ferris

Noah Webster & His Words by Jeri Chase Ferris
Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012

I had high hopes for Noah Webster & His Words by Jeri Chase Ferris. The story of Webster's life is told in straightforward prose, accessible to older elementary school students. The book ends with a timeline of significant events in America during Webster's life, additional biographical information about Webster, and a bibliography.

The illustrations by Vincent X. Kirsch are charmingly reminiscent of the School House Rock cartoons that I loved as a child, and the characters' heads (particularly Noah Webster's) are oversized and balance precariously on delicate bodies, providing an absurdly humorous touch.

The font is a Times New Roman style which gives the story an old book printing-press feel, and throughout the text, longer words are CAP-I-TAL-IZED [verb: to write or print with an initial capital or in capitals] and followed by parts of speech and brief definitions.

I found all of this to be charmingly fitting for a story about the creator of the first American dictionary.

When I read this book aloud to a group of third grade students, however, I found that it didn't entirely work. It was hard to read the definitions aloud to convey the dictionary meanings. (In fact, when I asked what all of the words were that I kept describing, they were unable to identify them as dictionary entries.) And the first half of the book focuses on Webster's life before he even started work on his dictionary. While this information does provide background on how Noah Webster came to love words, I think it was too much detail to keep children engaged long enough to learn about his greatest contribution and legacy.

And unfortunately, even to people who love words, the story of Noah's growth from the son of a farmer, to a student at Yale, to a schoolteacher, to a writer of school books and spellers and a grammar, to a magazine and newspaper publisher is not particularly enthralling.

One interesting detail that is included is that Webster seemed to see himself as a sort of activist, lecturing across the country about the importance of uniting through the use of a common language. This is when the story gets interesting, and, is also when Webster begins work on his dictionary.

I think the book would have been more successful if Webster's background had been described briefly in the first few pages with the bulk of the story focusing on his creation of the dictionary and his reasons for doing so. That formula, combined with the winning font, text gimmicks and illustrations would have made for a book about the dictionary that would have better done justice to the second most popular book ever printed in English.

Jeri Chase Ferris is the award-winning author of eleven biographies for children and young adults. She lives in Northern California with her horse, Pamyat, and her dog, Nasha. Visit her website at jerichaseferris.com.

Vincent X. Kirsh is a visual merchandiser, a graphic designer, a toymaker, and a puppeteer when he is not writing and illustrating children's books. Visit his website at vincentxkirsch.com

Renée Vaillancourt McGrath has worked at Montana Public Radio as a program host since 2002. Her background is in librarianship and she currently works as a freelance editor, blogger, and website developer. Check out more of her book reviews at reneesreads.com.

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