Roget’s Thesaurus is any student’s go-to reference when just the right word eludes them, yet few likely know the genesis (origins, provenance, source) of this exhaustive compilation of synonyms. Jen Bryant sets out to rectify that in The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, in which she and illustrator Melissa Sweet examine the life and work of Peter Mark Roget, a shy and reclusive British boy who began writing words in a notebook at the age of eight, and finished his original list of 1,000 words in 1805, after attending medical school at the University of Edinburgh. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers will publish the book in September.
A hasty departure on a family road trip some 15 years ago planted the seed for the picture-book biography. In a rush, Bryant grabbed a book from a stash she purchased at a library sale, thinking it was the novel she had planned to read on the drive. On the road, she pulled out the book, which turned out to be the first American edition of Roget’s Thesaurus.
“The book is organized in a way you no longer see, by category rather than alphabetically,” said Bryant. “As I kid I loved reading my grandparents’ encyclopedia, and as I looked through the thesaurus I realized that it was almost an encyclopedia of knowledge through language. And I began to wonder, ‘Who was this man who accomplished this amazing feat?’ ”
Over time, Bryant collected articles pertaining to Roget and other celebrated wordsmiths, including Samuel Johnson. As she and Sweet worked on their Caldecott Honor Book, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Eerdmans, 2008), the author realized there was a strong parallel between that poet, who was also a medical doctor, and Roget. “Physicians are trained to be great observers, and also they use this extensive body of language so that they can be very specific in making diagnoses and treating patients,” she said. “And I realized that both these men were very curious and intensely focused on their work.”
Filling his notebook with words was a way for Roget to occupy himself, as well as a way to protect himself from his constantly hovering mother. After his father died of tuberculosis when Roget was very young, his mother moved her family from one place to another quite often, making it difficult for the boy to make friends. “He felt the weight of his mother’s overbearingness, and when he started making word lists, he found an escape hatch,” explained Bryant. “He found great comfort in making his lists, and tried to make order of the world through language. The more language he mastered the better control he had over his world.”
Finding the Right Art for the Words
When Bryant approached Sweet about illustrating the biography, the artist leapt at the chance. “Being a word lover, I was very excited at the idea,” she recalled. “The project was so up my alley I could hardly believe it! Of course it’s always an incredible challenge to illustrate a book about a writer, or someone else whose work revolves around words. When I learned that Roget was a listmaker as a child, that clinched it for me, and I knew that his word lists had to be an important part of the art. But I had to figure out exactly how to make that happen.”
For inspiration, Sweet traveled to Santa Barbara, Calif., where she visited David Karpeles, founder and CEO of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums, who shared with her his cache of Roget memorabilia, including the original 1805 book of word lists. “I was hoping that visually it would give me some idea of where to go with the art, and it turned out to be truly the crown jewel,” she recalled. “Holding it in my hands and seeing thousands of words carefully handwritten with nary a cross-out was a really profound experience and an auspicious beginning for me.”
Sweet began collecting and crafting the many pieces that would make up her collages for The Right Word. “In the 18th century, it was popular to create ‘cabinets of curiosities’ – collections of odd bits of natural history randomly displayed,” she explained. “I wanted the book to have the same feeling, and to portray Roget as a scientist, doctor, and inventor.”
The elements she assembled to be photographed included classification and scientific illustration, images from Roget’s Bridgewater Treatise, old botanicals, vintage papers, book covers, and type drawers. And, of course, word lists. “I wanted the art to look modern, but also wanted much of the content to be Roget’s,” she said. “His words became so much a part of the art that they became their own entity – separate from the text. And the fact that he was such a great and interesting character helped a ton.”
According to Bryant, her collaborator admirably accomplished what she set out to do. Sweet’s finished art, the author said, “borrows from so many places and is so eclectic, and it really captures the way Roget’s mind worked. You can sense the joy that Melissa found in creating it – she was the ideal person to illustrate this book.”
Publisher Anita Eerdmans, who worked with Bryant and Sweet on A River of Words, noted that she was “thrilled to be able to collaborate with them again,” and said she was impressed by how both the words and art convey the breadth of Roget’s intellect and work. “I always thought that his thesaurus was just a dictionary of synonyms, but the story Jen and Melissa tell, about how Roget created it as a classification of ideas and how his mind worked, is fascinating.”
Calling The Right Word a “complex project to pull together,” Eerdmans credited the contributions of editor Kathleen Merz and art director Gayle Brown, and offered high praise for Bryant and Sweet. “It was a true collaborative effort, and there’s not a single page in this book that wasn’t gone over with a fine-tooth comb,” she said. “Jen and Melissa are both such pros, and they definitely exceeded expectations.”
The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illus. by Melissa Sweet. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, $17.50 Sept. ISBN 978-0-8028-5385-1