|Image from JeriChaseFerris.com|
You’ve probably consulted his most famous book, The American Dictionary of the English Language, but have you ever stopped to think about why Noah Webster wrote his dictionary? This lively and well-researched picture book biography follows Webster’s journey to unite the country with words. Before Webster came along Americans spelled the same word in many different ways. Although it took him over twenty years of writing, researching, and editing, Webster’s efforts were not in vain. His dictionary continues to be the second most popular book ever printed (after the Bible) and whether they consult the print or online version, Americans use the book to learn, spell, and use almost every word in the English language.
You might think that the author of a dictionary might not be a fascinating subject for a picture book biography, but Ferris, known for her non-fiction books on U.S. history, disproves this statement from page one. The energetic and frequently humorous text pushes the story along at a vigorous pace. The book is structured chronologically, starting with Webster’s childhood on his father’s farm and progressing through his career and personal life to his death in 1843. Although Ferris cites years within the text, this provides context for the passing years and does not drag the story down. Most notably, Ferris defines words within the text, dictionary-style, which not only helps readers understand the story, but illustrates the importance of dictionaries. These words are divided into syllables for pronunciation, printed in bold capitals, and definitions are provided in brackets. For instance, "U-NITE [verb: make one]." Back matter includes a timeline with events in Webster’s life and U.S. history, a bibliography of websites and primary and secondary sources, and more biographical information on Webster’s personal life and his many accomplishments.
The stylized, cartoonish illustrations depict the verbally passionate Webster in period clothing with a gigantic head and a big mouth. This fits with Ferris’ description of Webster who, “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]…” The illustrations are contained within inky borders and the text is incorporated into the compositions.
Use this book as an introduction to a lesson on how to use a dictionary for the lower elementary grades. Bring in a variety of dictionaries and have kids compare definitions for the same word. Do all the dictionaries use the same definition? If you have access to a computer children can also learn how to use an online dictionary. Have each child pick their favorite word and create a page with the definition(s), which could include an illustration. Have the children work as a group to put the words in alphabetical order and then put them together to make a dictionary of favorite words.
If you’re sharing this book with middle or high school students, try pairing it with Lemony Snicket’s 13 Words. Follow up by playing the board game, Balderdash. If you don’t have the game or don’t have the money to spend, never fear. You can create your own version by picking out lesser known words from the dictionary and writing them at the top of an index card (you will probably want to write out at least 50 words because they cannot be reused with the same players). Below write the real definition of the word. Make a scoreboard to keep track of points. The rules for playing are outlined on Wikipedia. Many thanks to BK for teaching me this game!
Other great resources include the extensive discussion and activity guide written by Debbie Gonzales and the website for the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.