Noah Webster & His Words by Jeri Chase Ferris

Lynn: OK – I admit to being a word geek but I knew very little about the amazing man featured in Noah Webster & His Words (Houghton 2012).  Versatile and opinionated, the energetic Webster wrote spelling, grammar and reading books for schools, lectured, published a newspaper and magazine, gave singing lessons, raised a family and worked hard for a strong central government in our new nation as well as writing the landmark dictionary that bears his name.

Ferris’ funny and informative book chronicles the life of a truly inspiring man whose work shaped our culture.  The speedy pace of this book matches it’s subject who seemed to find time for everything.  Ferris gives us an intriguing glimpse of Webster’s personality as well as his accomplishments, something that really brings him to life.

“Noah Webster always knew he was right, and he never got tired of saying so (even if, sometimes, he wasn’t.  He was, he said, ‘full of CON-FI-DENCE’ [noun:  belief that one is right] from the beginning.”

HA!  Kids will all know someone with that trait although I admit it made me squirm a bit.  I loved the use of the dictionary definitions scattered throughout the text and the humorous but admiring tone of the writing that is matched by Vincent X. Kirsch’s wonderful comic illustrations.  Kirsch’s people have hot-air balloon sized heads that clearly have lots of room for words!

The many uses of this terrific book are MAN-I-FEST [adj:  clearly apparent to the sight or understanding; obvious] but we’ll give you some fun suggestions just the same.  REC-OM-MEND-ED  [v:  counseled or advised] for all elementary collections.

Cindy: I share a birthday with Noah Webster*, so I was delighted when Lynn found this book at the public library.  I, too, knew little about the man behind the dictionary. Some things have changed little since Webster’s days. College is still expensive and there is debt to repay after graduation, and school teachers don’t have the supplies they need to teach. And now I know where the patron request for books they remember by color came from!

Noah wanted his new spelling book to look different from other books on the shelves, so he told his printers to put a blue cover on it. That way, people could just ask for the “blue-backed speller.”

The book wraps up with an illustrated timeline and an extra page of information about Webster. He worked to pass the first copyright law. Word geeks unite! You will be EC-STAT-IC [adj.: filled with pleasure; delighted; thrilled] to get your hands on this book.

* When my birthday rolls around it’s much more fun to focus on Noah Webster than on Marie Antoinette’s beheading by guillotine that also happened on October 16th.

Common Core Connections

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.2g Consult reference materials, including beginning dictionaries, as needed to check and correct spellings.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.1a Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in general and their functions in particular sentences.

What better way to introduce dictionary work than to read this biography of the man who created the first one. The class could generate a list of words from this book that they need to look up and have each student make a page for a classroom illustrated dictionary to accompany this biography. Be sure to include parts of speech in the dictionary definitions.

The Noah Webster House has a Kid’s Corner resource section with some activities that will be useful to supplement this project.

Have students look at Webster’s handwritten pages for his dictionary. The website challenges them to see if they can read his writing. And there’s an activity sheet for creating your own dictionary.

They also have the Webster-themed Mini-Page archived here that is full of information and activities.




About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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