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The Right Word

right wordWhile we took a short break over the holidays, you can bet that the members of the Real Caldecott Committee did not. Neither sleet nor dark of night nor even New Year’s or Festivus celebrations can deter committee members from their responsibilities. And now it’s January. Less than one month to go until…Deliberation Weekend! followed by…Announcement Monday! So let’s get right back into it with Jen Bryant (author) and Melissa Sweet’s (illustrator) picture-book biography The Right Word.

It may take a whole lot of words to adequately present The Right Word. For sure, it will take time to thoroughly know it. It is not a book that the committee will be able to assess in a few minutes, or even a few hours. The art is packed with references, with minutiae, and with words, words, words — all in service to introducing readers to Peter Mark Roget, creator of the Thesaurus.

You can tell from the cover that Sweet won’t be taking a minimalist approach. Look at all that stuff spilling out from the pages of the open crimson book depicted on the cover. (This red book reappears throughout the book — it’s clearly a reproduction of the binding of Roget’s first, 1805 collection of word lists. And what a fabulous, extra-care touch to emboss the cover with those two vertical grooves to delineate the spine of the red book.)

Roget was obsessed with making order out of a disordered world, and then with collecting all the ideas in the world and putting them into one place, his Thesaurus. Appropriately, then, Sweet’s collages are stuffed with the flora and fauna Roget would have catalogued as a child (as well as those encountered in one of his own favorite books, Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae). Her collages also incorporate blocks of color and shape; systems and machines. But mostly, Sweet’s illustrations incorporate words. Roget tried to create order through compulsive list-making. And so the art in this book teems with words, overflows with words, fair bursts with words. (In contrast, wisely, Jen Bryant’s text is spare and beautifully honed.) There are words everywhere. Hand-lettered words, in dialogue or thought balloons or as part of the lists Roget was constantly making. Printed words, found on the paper Sweet uses in her collages. In the main pictures; in the background; in the corners. There are ONE THOUSAND words on the closing endpapers alone. Hand-written by Sweet.

After I got over being gobsmacked by how intricate and jam-packed the art was, I began to wonder, What was Sweet’s purpose here? It seems to me that she has endeavored to reveal in her art not just the life of Roget, but his mind as well. And also to balance her presentation, so that simple, straightforward watercolor illustrations pair with much more complex collages to reveal both his external and internal lives.

I applaud Sweet for her bravery in attempting to traverse that border between order and chaos. And I think she was successful — more so, say, than Sis’s Pilot and the Little Prince, which is visually stunning and crammed with details about St. Exupery’s life but in the end leaves the reader with more questions than answers about his life. When I finished The Right Word, the combination of Bryant’s text and Sweet’s art revealed the whole person to me. Not every detail about his life may have been included, but I felt I knew who Roget was, what mattered to him, the context of his life, and what the trajectory of that life was.

I’m not sure how intentional it was, but the earliest pages seem to take a little while to establish themselves. Is that because Roget’s early life was so difficult and unsettled, and it took him a little longer than other children to get on track? I was kept definitely off-balance as a reader, maybe even up until the page where eight-year-old Peter is shown sitting at a desk, working on his first book of lists. And then there are a few pages where the contents of Roget’s mind is so exactly reproduced, in terms of the sheer volume of information being processed and organized, that I’m not always sure where to look.

But the strengths here are so strong. In a book as ambitious as this, do they outweigh the rough patches? (If indeed they are rough patches. Others may not see them as such.) I imagine that The Right Word will pose some formidable challenges for the real committee as it identifies all the visual references and meaningful recurring details and words words words, and traces them throughout the book.

 

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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Comments

  1. Lovely and passionate examination of a truly stunning book, one that I would have to think is enjoying some sustained longevity on those narrowing short lists. One of my own favorites, by two masters of their craft. And what an inspired subject!

    I thought the early pages rightly examined Roget’s biographical roots with the humanism that would color the later complexities inherent in his life’s work. I was pulled in myself from the lovely scenic wonderment of the forest darkness and that sublime pink rose, beautifully complimenting Bryant’s poetic prose of his childhood and tragic intrusion. The classes I read this book to were immediately captivated by those initial impressions.

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