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My first nonfiction picture book of 2015 is Jeri Chase Ferris’s biography of Noah Webster, best known today for writing the dictionary that still bears his name.
Writing a dictionary might not seem like a very lively pursuit to some young readers, but Noah Webster and His Words is a vibrant, engaging biography of an opinionated, energetic man. Webster was expected to take over his father’s farm, but he had a different plan for his future: education. And, as Ferris notes on the first page, Webster usually insisted on getting his way: “Noah Webster always knew he was right, and he never got tired of saying so (even if, sometimes, he wasn’t.)”
Webster was motivated to begin a writing career after he became a schoolteacher and realized that all of the materials and texts available for his pupils’ use were British, not American. He believed that sharing a common language and stories could unite Americans, and he traveled the country lecturing about his beliefs. Although he wrote various popular textbooks, including grammars and spellers, the dictionary was his “big idea.” He began the project in 1807 and worked tirelessly until its publication in 1828. The kind of erudition such an undertaking required must have been daunting. Webster read all of the books in the libraries that were available to him, studied 20 different languages, and finally traveled to Europe to gain access to more books.
This is a well-paced cradle-to-grave biography that conveys a great deal of interesting information and also manages to be quite humorous. Ferris capitalizes on the dictionary theme by incorporating definitions throughout the text. That’s a device that could have gotten old very quickly but instead felt fresh. Vincent Kirsch’s terrific illustrations must also be singled out for praise. Like the text itself, the illustrations are funny even as they create a period feel.
There is some useful back matter, including additional biographical information in “More About Noah Webster” (helpfully written to be comprehensible to young readers) and a list of sources and websites.