Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Right Word Trifecta

I sent Colby Sharp the following email message just moments after I read the last page of The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus. 

Hi, Mr. Sharp, 

I hope you're having a great day. I just finished reading The Right Word by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet. It is the perfect book for a Sharp-Schu trifecta and our Mock Caldecott unit. If you're interested, I'll contact Eerdmans. You're interested, right? Right? Right? :) :) 

Chat with you soon!


Well, Mr. Colby Sharp agreed with me. Donalyn Miller, Colby, and I are celebrating this gorgeous nonfiction picture book today. You'll read an interview with Jen Bryant here, an interview with Melissa Sweet on Colby's blog, and Donalyn's review over at the Nerdy Book Club's blog. Happy blog hopping! 

I wrote the words in red, and Jen Bryant wrote the words in black. Thank you, Jen! 

Peter Mark Roget thought that words were powerful and that they belonged to everyone. He’d danced at formal gatherings and rubbed elbows with famous writers, artists and inventors. He knew countesses and powerful men in Parliament. However, he also treated adults and children from the poorest sections of the city, who lived and worked in unsafe, crowded conditions. He believed strongly in the democratizing effect of language and literacy, and this, as much as his own personal reasons for list-making, drove him to refine, and finally to publish, his Thesaurus.

Melissa Sweet’s illustrations perfectly capture (ensnare, collect, represent, embody) Roget’s true PASSION for Language and Knowledge, and his compulsion to bring as much order as possible to them. She also brilliantly reveals Roget’s eclectic interests, his dabbling in everything from magnetism to natural history to optics to chess. In our era, when children are asked very early in their lives “what will you BE?” this kind of multi-faceted, follow-your-bliss-life seems impossible. But in Roget’s time, as Melissa so deftly illustrates, it was encouraged and supported by “amateur” literary, philosophical and scientific groups like the Royal Society, The National Geographic Society, and others. 

Here are five of my favorite words: 

1.  ANACHRONISM   [#115]
2.  MUTABILITY [#149]
3.  CONDUIT   [#350]
4.  ORACLE [#513]
5.  COURAGE [#861]

William Carlos Williams, Horace Pippin, and Peter Mark Roget were astute observers of everything and everyone around them. If, as Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Rauschenberg claim, an artist’s job is to be” a witness to the world,” (Oates) and to “their time and place in history” (Rauschenberg) then these three have magnificently fulfilled that role. As physicians, Roget and Williams relied on their careful observations of the human body to care for the sick and injured. Curious and attentive by nature, their profession undoubtedly boosted their already well-honed skills in this area. In a similar way, Pippin’s economically deprived childhood, his shifting domestic circumstances, his quitting school to work at several different jobs, and his experiences in the trenches of WWI, served to deepen his already keen awareness of his surroundings and his place in them. We are lucky that they didn’t stop there . . . all three of these men, in addition to their daily “paid” work, willingly took on the additional task of translating what they observed  into masterful poems, books, essays, and paintings. 
Download the discussion guide
I think school libraries represent the hub of the great spinning wheel we know as “school.” A library is to a school what a kitchen is to a home . . . it’s the emotional and logistical center, where all of the seemingly disparate grades, subjects and disciplines can be seen and experienced together; where a child can browse, explore, experiment with new voices and new interests; where they can spend time in a safe, quiet space, expanding their minds and deepening their imagination (without which, we now know, all of that logical, informational input gained in the other rooms  will never be used and synthesized!). I recall, with great clarity, each of my school libraries, from Kindergarten through college, and I CANNOT believe that any good school would consider doing away with their library. 

Reading is like gymnastics for the mind; and its well-documented ability to instill empathy also makes it a great workout for the heart, too.  At the same time, it’s a source of such infinite pleasure, that I’m sure I wouldn’t survive very long without it. Just as children have nap time, I think adults should have reading time in the midst of each working day. Free reading—but of good quality, not simply gossip written down beside celebrity photos. (Just  imagine the collective boost in empathy, cognition, verbal fluency—not to mention the much more interesting conversations in the lunch room or on the elevator!)  I will start the petition . . . 

Nonfiction picture books are my favorite books to write. Even though they’re shorter than novels and full-length biographies, they’re just as challenging to create. Whenever I start one, I feel like I’m putting together one of those 1,000-piece puzzles, but there’s no picture on the box. I must create the picture, but I must do it with words—words that sing when they’re read out loud, but which also convey the essence of the topic or biographical subject. It’s difficult, but also immensely rewarding. Plus, once I’m finished with the text, an illustrator conveys the story in visual art, which doubles (or, in the case of Melissa Sweet, triples or quadruples) the energy of my narrative.  

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me… “Jen, how did you start writing picture books?  Well, Mr. Schu, it was quite by accident, and with a little nudge from Eileen Spinelli. About a dozen years ago, Eileen, Jerry and I went to see an exhibit of Georgia O’Keeffe’s still life paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I’d been reading a lot about O’Keeffe, and I showed Eileen some poems I’d written about the artist’s time in New Mexico. “Do you think I could submit these to a literary magazine?” I asked.  “Absolutely,” Eileen replied. ”But I think, with a few tweaks, this would make a great picture book manuscript.” That was the beginning of Georgia’s Bones, published in 2005 and still in print today. It’s dedicated to Eileen, an extraordinary poet and one of the most generous people on the planet.

I am giving away one copy of The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus. 

Rules for the Giveaway 

1. It will run from 9/16 to 11:59 p.m. on 9/17. 

2. You must be at least 13. 

3. Please pay it forward. 

I'm looking forward to reading Donalyn Miller's review of The Right Word

Borrow The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops. 


  1. What beautifully constructed and thoughtful (and thought provoking) answers! Thanks, Mr. Schu, thanks, Jen!

  2. Thanks for this great interview from Jen Bryant, Mr. Schu! Awesome to read all three posts about this new book!

  3. I'm very excited about this book. Great post!

  4. Outstanding post for an inspiring book.Thank you John, Colby and Donalyn.