Monday, November 25, 2013

Noah Webster and His Words

Noah Webster and His Words
by Jeri Chase Ferris; illus. by Vincent X. Kirsch
32 pages; ages 4 – 8
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013

This is a fun picture book bi-og-ra-phy [noun: a written history of a person's life]. While authentic – it’s based on lots of research – the dialogue adds a touch of fictionalization.* But a great story about a guy who loved language and wanted to document American English as a separate language from the King’s English.
(* the dialog adds literary life to the nonfiction. Jeri isn't writing fiction - she's using the same tools fiction writers use to bring her nonfiction story to life. see her comment below. )

Noah does not want to be a farmer like his father and his father’s father. Instead, he wants to be a schol-ar [noun: one who goes to school; a person who knows a lot]. The most controversial thing Noah did was to push the idea of standardized spellings and word usage. Prior to his spellers and dictionary, people wrote words the way they sounded. That meant a single word might be spelled three or for/four/fower/fore ways. Webster also decided that since this was a new country, we needed new and simplified spellings. Instead of “plough” he wrote “plow”.

The story is interspersed with dictionary-like definitions, and the back pages are a treasure trove for word lovers and nonfiction aficionados. There’s a detailed timeline in which “facts are explained”. Highlights include: the Boston Massacre, Tea Party, fighting in the Militia against the Brits and, always, working on his ultimate word book. There is an Author’s note with even more facts, including Webster’s opposition to slavery and his advocacy for the first copyright law. We learn that Webster was a teacher, lawyer, County court judge and founder of Amherst College… not just the guy who wrote the book we have to memorize before the SAT’s. The author includes a list of primary sources and some websites for kids (and their parents) who want to learn more.

Although this book is aimed at the 4- to 8-year old crowd, I think kids in 4th & 5th grade will get a kick out of it – especially if you pair it with Frindle, by Andrew Clements. Frindle, you might recall, is a story about a boy who makes up a word and then tries to get it included in the dictionary. 

If you’re looking for some activities to get kids involved with words, try these:

Find some old dictionaries at a used book sale and let kids cut out (or tear out) a favorite word to incorporate into a drawing/painting/collage.

Collect words in a can – words that are neat, unusual, or just sound cool. Use the words to write poetry, as story-starters, or just to share and listen to the cool words.

Play Text Twist, Boggle, Scrabble Slam or other games.
Check out more Nonfiction reads today over at Jean LittleLibrary. Review copy provided by local library.


  1. What a great book! We love word games at our house.

  2. Hi Sue! Thanks for the great review of NOAH. Just want to be sure you and all your readers know that all quotes in the book are definitely authentic. I am quoting Noah's words exactly. No element of fiction here.
    I love the idea of pairing it with Frindle, too.
    Thanks again!

    1. Hi Jeri - You did a marvelous job of using the same techniques fiction writers use to bring nonfiction to life - that's what I meant to say.... & I'll put a note in the blog post to that effect.

  3. Thanks for clarifying, Sue, so librarians, teachers, and kids know this book is 100% NF. Not a single word is made up.