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The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus
Written by Jen Bryant; Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2014
ISBN # 978-0-8028-5383-1

Grades K and up

Book Review

What’s a better word or phrase for “outstanding”? How about The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, the latest picturebook biography by the award-winning team of Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet. This time, they introduce young readers to Peter Mark Roget, the meek and introverted linguaphile who is best known for publishing and popularizing one of our most valuable reference tools: the thesaurus. The biography begins at a critical period in Roget’s youth—the death of his father—which sets his family on a series of successive moves and ultimately leads young Roget to find solace and stability in listmaking. From there, Jen Bryant’s pitch-perfect prose chronicles Roget’s childhood passion for books and science to his adult endeavors as a teacher, doctor, and author. Melissa Sweet’s buoyant illustrations and handwritten text of watercolor, collage, and mixed media mirror Roget’s close study of detail and contemplation of words. Additionally, the book’s peritext and back matter, including the author’s and illustrator’s notes, continue to complement the subject of their collaboration and delight readers with witty and exuberant references. Once again, the duo of Bryant and Sweet have produced a book that begs to be on every child’s classroom bookshelf.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Grades K and up

Voting on the Right Word. Armed with cameras or tablets, take students on a walk around their school or neighborhood to take photos of various sights. These might include signs, buildings, people, and plants. Print or display one photo at a time for the class, and have them come up with various words to describe qualities of what they see, such as colors, expressions, shapes, or textures. Note that they are not naming what they see, but describingwhat they see. Have students use a print thesaurus or one of the online versions listed below to list several synonyms for those descriptive words. As a class, discuss the semantic nuances of each synonym, and then have the class vote on the right word to really describe what they see.
Personalized Thesaurus. Ask students to scan some of their previous writing and keep track of the words they see themselves using repeatedly. Have them write these words in the back of their writer’s notebooks, in a Notes file on their tablets or smartphones, or on a sheet of paper to keep in their writing folders. Then, have students use either a print thesaurus or one of the online versions listed below to compile a list of synonyms they can use in place of their own commonly used words. Have them write these synonyms down alongside those commonly used words, so they have a personalized thesaurus on hand whenever they’re writing.
Vocabulary Gradient. Close inspection of the lists included in the illustrations reveal that they are not randomly strung together. Many of those lists present words related to a particular concept that progress on a continuum according to order of degree or intensity of meaning (see, for example, the list of words that describe Roget’s mother’s anxiety about his wanderings alone). Challenge students to create their own word gradient that moves from one concept to another and increases or decreases in intensity or degree along the way. For example, the concept may be temperature, with words that describe cold on one end (e.g., chilly, frosty, wintry, biting, etc.) and words that describe hot (e.g., blistering, scorching, roasting, summery, etc.) on another.  Using a print thesaurus or one of the online versions listed below in Further Explorations, have students compile a list of words to include on their continuum. Words that are placed along the continuum should be synonyms that bridge one end of the continuum with the other. Make sure students are able to provide sound rationales for including certain words and placing them in certain locations along the gradient continuum.
Reading Picturebook Illustrations. The illustrations of picturebooks (as opposed to the two words picture books) convey just as much, if not more, meaning as the text so that the full message or story is not complete without closely studying them. Melissa Sweet is a master at providing layers of rich information in her illustrations to enhance Jen Bryant’s words. Have students closely read the illustrations throughout The Right Word to determine what else is being added to Roget’s story. Then, have students rewrite the text to include the information conveyed through the illustrations in order to emphasize just how much meaning is being communicated through the pictures as well.
Grades 3 and up
The Names Behind the References. Divide students into small groups to inquire about the people whose names are associated with a variety of reference materials. Along with Roget’s Thesaurus, such reference materials might include Webster’s Dictionary, Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, or Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. After students have researched their figures, have them present their findings to the class. Then, challenge students to create their own reference book using their own names and these reference materials as mentor texts.
Roget the Scientist, Roget the Inventor. Though he is most famous for his thesaurus, Roget spent much of his life as a scientist and inventor. Have students inquire more about Roget’s accomplishments in these fields. After the inquiry, have them present their findings in a multimedia presentation to round out what we know about Roget.
Critical Literacy
A Better Word?While Roget’s Thesaurus is a remarkable reference tool and testimony to the richness of language, it only presents words and phrases that are part of the English language. Discuss with your class whether one language can really express everything someone wants to say. Are there words or phrases in other languages that do a better job of capturing the nuances and connotations of meaning that one wants to convey? Have your students inquire into this matter. If they or their families speak languages other than English, have them examine the translations of words from one language to the other. Do they really convey the exact same meaning? You might also have students carry this inquiry into their foreign language classes. After conducting some research, have students create a multilingual thesaurus to use in class and possibly share in the school or local library .
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Jen Bryan’s website
Melissa Sweet’s website
eBook of Roget’s Thesaurus
Online thesaurus websites
Karpeles Manuscript Library (for photos of Roget’s original manuscript)

Dubosarsky, U. (2009). The word snoop. Ill. by T. Riddle. New York: Dial.

Ferris, J. C. (2012). Noah Webster & his words. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

Gorrell, G. K. (2009). Say what?: The weird and mysterious journey of the English language. New York: Tundra Books.

Lloyd, N. (2014). A snicker of magic. New York: Scholastic. See also our blog entry at

Shea, P. D. (2009). Noah Webster: Weaver of words. Ill. by M. Vachula. Hornsdale, PA: Calkins Creek.

Robb, D. (2008). Ox, house, stick: The history of our alphabet. Ill. by A. Smith. Boston: Charlesbridge.

Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.