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Review of W Is for Webster: Noah Webster and His American Dictionary

fern_w is for websterW Is for Webster: Noah Webster and His American Dictionary
by Tracey Fern; illus. by Boris Kulikov
Primary   Ferguson/Farrar   32 pp.
11/15   978-0-374-38240-7   $17.99

This breezy picture-book biography introduces young readers to the man responsible for all those plain, sturdy dictionaries housed in elementary classrooms across America. Far from plain himself, Webster was tall with flaming red hair. A smart and serious student, he could also be a bit highfalutin, which Fern emphasizes using a lighthearted repeated rhetorical pattern. He found little to challenge him at school, where there was too much “goofing around. Noah called goofing around ‘playing roguish tricks.’ This is an example of Noah talking big.” During the Revolutionary War, Noah was “‘ill able to bear the fatigues of a soldier.’ That was Noah’s big way of saying he was a lousy soldier.” Kulikov’s energetic illustrations put Webster at the center of every spread by making him larger or brighter than his surroundings. Whimsy abounds: we see young Noah, who despised working on the farm but loved learning, standing on a barrel and reciting his lessons to bewildered farm animals, or an older Webster excavating the roots of words beginning with A. And when, in 1825, Webster finally completes his dictionary of more than seventy thousand entries, Kulikov shows him seated behind a huge tome the size of a desk, placing the stopper into a bottle of ink. Fern places less emphasis on his political reasons for the dictionary than Ferris’s Noah Webster & His Words (rev. 9/12) and gives more weight to the compilation of his magnum opus; the two books complement each other nicely. Appended with an author’s note and a brief bibliography.

From the November/December 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Betty Carter

Betty Carter, an independent consultant, is professor emerita of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University.

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