The Man Behind the Dictionary

Noah Webster and His Words
By Jeri Chase Ferris
Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch
(Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012, New   York, $16.99)

The man whose name has become nearly synonymous with dictionaries also helped establish American English as a distinctive form of the language. Noah Webster, best known for Webster’s Dictionary, also penned a speller and a grammatical text. Although many words had multiple spellings in the eighteenth century, he insisted that all Americans use a single form of each word. Along the way, Webster also taught school, practiced law, wrote other books, and founded a magazine and newspaper.

In Noah Webster and His Words, Jeri Chase Ferris and illustrator Vincent X. Kirsch paint an affectionate portrait of the opinionated grammarian. Ferris’s narrative lends itself well to reading out loud. The book starts and ends on the same humorous note – “Noah Webster always knew he was right” – implying that a biographical subject, even a clever, well-intentioned one, is as prone to human pitfalls as any picture-book character. Kirsch’s illustrations bring the same sense of fun to the story. Webster’s large, smiling head suggests the extent of both his intellect and his self-regard. If the lively text and illustrations exemplify today’s picture books, the typeface, which dates from the 1770s, links the past with the present, much like Webster’s Dictionaries do today.

The picture-book biography also plays homage to Webster’s most famous creation. Whenever Ferris uses a word that may be unfamiliar to beginning readers, she inserts a dictionary entry for the word, complete with part of speech, syllable count, and definition, thus introducing kids to both new vocabulary and the dictionary itself. While adults may find this tactic disruptive, it should engage young readers. Noah Webster and His Words is a playful look at a towering, though little studied, figure in American history.

-Dorothy A. Dahm






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