Jeri Chase Ferris has penned children’s biographies of Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, Matthew Henson, Marian Anderson, and other American figures in civil rights, the arts, and sciences. Earlier this year, she published Noah Webster & His Words, a picture-book biography of the man behind the institution that is Webster’s Dictionary. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about overlooked American heroes, the surprising aspects of serious figures, and her absorption with history.
Kidsbiographer: Noah Webster helped create American English, he was an intellectual and political force during his lifetime, and through his dictionaries, he has a continuing presence in American life. Yet I don’t remember learning much about him during my school years. How did you decide to write a picture-book biography of this Founding Father of American spelling?
Jeri Chase Ferris: I write about people who made a difference for the good in America, but are relatively unknown, or what they did is unknown. For example, ARCTIC EXPLORER is the biography of Matthew Henson, the black co-discoverer of the North Pole. NATIVE AMERICAN DOCTOR is the biography of Susan LaFlesche Picotte, the first woman Native American doctor. WHAT ARE YOU FIGURING NOW? is the biography of Benjamin Banneker, the black man who built the first wooden clock in America, helped survey Washington D.C., wrote more almanacs than Benjamin Franklin did … Well, you get the idea. These heroes were mostly unknown.
So why Noah Webster? Everybody knows about Webster, right? He wrote Webster’s Dictionary, right? Right. But what else did Noah do? When you read NOAH WEBSTER & HIS WORDS, you will learn how vital he was in keeping our fledging [one that is new] nation together; how he influenced our Constitution; how his books united America, and much, much more.
And why a picture book biography? I had written an earlier chapter book biography of Noah (WHAT DO YOU MEAN?), which sadly went out of print. Teachers and librarians often asked me for that book, and I was embarrassed to say it was not available. So, having sent off my Siege of Leningrad historical fiction to my agent, I decided to have another go at Noah, this time a picture book.
Kidsbiographer: Can you tell me about the research you did to write Noah Webster and His Words?
Jeri Chase Ferris: I love history and research! I’m a historian and wanna-be archaeologist, and prefer digging up facts to just about anything.
For my first bio of Noah, I dug into all the books and research already done on him, my husband Tom and I traveled to Noah’s geographical sites, and I corresponded with Noah’s great-great-great-grand son. That was like touching history itself, and added to the primary source material that is so critical to a NF work.
For NOAH WEBSTER & HIS WORDS, I reviewed all my previous research and happily explored additional new books and many new websites. I worked with the director of the NW Foundation, who read and vetted several versions of the ms. until it finally passed muster, and a researcher at Merriam-Webster provided some great definition ideas.
Kidsbiographer: Noah Webster is not only an appealing biographical subject; he makes a quirky, delightful picture-book character. When you wrote Noah Webster and his Words, how did you balance his humorous traits – his opinion of his own abilities, for example – with his admirable qualities: his diligence and his utmost dedication to education and the American people?
Jeri Chase Ferris: Very carefully.
He really was opinionated and really did believe he was right in his opinions. He would go on at great length to prove his positions, sometimes in the face of public ridicule. I admired his fortitude and the fact that despite being occasionally discouraged and depressed, he was never silenced by others’ negative opinions. He bounced back, sometimes even with humor, to “correct” his critics. He was convinced that Americans needed a national head of state, a national set of rules, standard spelling (at that time, the same word might be spelled ten different ways in ten different places), American history and reading and geography books, and ultimately, needed an American dictionary.
Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of the book is its suitability for reading out loud. The picture-book biography begins and ends with “Noah Webster always knew he was right,” which constitutes a narrative punchline. Also, the book contains a lot of word play, even apart from the dictionary definitions. How did you give the book its lively aural quality?
Jeri Chase Ferris: I had such fun with Noah and his quirkiness and stolid self-discipline and the various sides of his personality (he loved dancing and singing – who would have guessed?) that the liveliness couldn’t help but appear. I’m delighted you like it!
Kidsbiographer: What lessons do you hope children will take away from Noah Webster and His Words about dictionaries and language in general?
Jeri Chase Ferris: Language is fun!
Definitions will surprise you!
The more words you know, the more you can say!
And from Noah himself – never give up when you believe you are right.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Jeri Chase Ferris: Sure would.
The Siege of Leningrad ms. I mentioned earlier, THE LAST MOUSE IN LENINGRAD, is still being edited. It’s based on the life of a Russian friend who, beginning at age 10, miraculously survived 900 days of deprivation, freezing and starvation when Leningrad was surrounded by German troops during WWII. This book began the evening my husband and I were having dinner with our dear friends in their small Leningrad apt. It was Christmas for us (not for them) and they had decorated a tiny fir tree for the occasion. Leonid said, during dinner, “When I look at the yulka (fir tree) I always remember the Siege. Then we did not decorate the tree. We ate it.” At that moment I knew I had to tell this story.
Also, I’m working on a MG historical fiction set on the Ohio River, about 1800.
Also, I’m starting a MG historical fiction set at the California Russian settlement of Fort Ross, about 1815.
Also, I’m thinking about a historical fiction picture book about a young immigrant girl in 1880s New England who had only one blouse and one skirt, and who …
Did I mention I love history?