The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus Book Poster Image
Engaging picture-book intro to word-loving thesaurus author.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Introduces young readers to the concept of a thesaurus and the existence of the right word. The Right Word also conveys a lively sense of 19th-century history and daily life, as well as the era's many scientific discoveries.

Positive Messages

Study hard, work hard, and pursue your interests with passion, but be kind to and considerate of others.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Peter pursues his interests, such as list-making, with a diligence some might find obsessive, but his efforts bring benefits to many people -- from the impoverished factory workers he treats as a doctor to the many people who use his Thesaurus.

Violence & Scariness

As the story begins, young Peter and his family are dealing with his father's death.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that 2015 Caldecott Honor book The Right Word, by author Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet, who created the Caldecott Honor-winning book A River of Words, is a picture-book biography of the boy who grew up to write Roget's Thesaurus, the dictionary-like resource that students and writers commonly use to find synonyms or "the right word." The topic may seem above the level of the picture-book audience, but there's a lot going on here that's easily accessible. You don't have to share young Peter Roget's obsessive interest in list-making and categorization to be intrigued by the relatable tale of a shy, studious, fatherless boy who's interested in everything, who started making lists at 8, and who by 19 had graduated from medical school. Appealing illustrations densely packed with lists and notes, as well as supplemental resources in the back of the book, invite repeat visits and new discoveries.

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What's the story?

After his father's death, young Peter Roget travels with his family to London. Frequently uprooted as the family moves, he has few friends but loves books and soon starts making lists of everything he encounters, especially words (starting with the Latin ones his tutor teaches him, along with their English counterparts). As he grows up, pursuing his interests and studying hard, he eventually becomes a doctor, travels, and frequently lectures to learned audiences who admire his inventions, such as a portable chess set. Then the book of word lists he compiled in his youth becomes a best seller -- and remains one to this day.

Is it any good?

THE RIGHT WORD is a richly illustrated biography of famed thesaurus author Peter Mark Roget. Not every kid, especially in the early-reader set, is going to be as fired up as young Peter about choosing the right word and compiling knowledge, with passages such as, "If only all the ideas in the world could be found in one place, then everyone would have one book where they could find the best word, the one that really fit. Peter carried this idea with him like a secret treasure." And the whole concept of a thesaurus may fall flat with readers not quite ready for it. But kids who already love words (or making lists) will be in heaven, and even those who don't will relate to the tale of a shy, studious boy who starts to make lists to remember his late father, becomes a doctor at 19, and goes on to become friends with some of the 19th century's great scientists.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Roget's Thesaurus and why it's been so popular for more than a century. Why do you think it might be good to know many different words for the same thing?

  • Do you think it's fun to make lists of things? Do you think you learn something in putting lists together? Could one thing be on many lists?

  • When young Peter graduates from medical school at 19, he can't work as a doctor because everyone thinks he's too young. Have you ever had the problem of people thinking you weren't old enough to do something right? How did you deal with it?

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