RUBY WALLAU | Staff Photographer
“The Right Word” written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is Week One’s selection for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Young Readers program.
Jen Bryant didn’t intend to read a thesaurus on a road trip through Pennsylvania, but when she pulled out Roget’s Thesaurus instead of the novel she expected to find, she considered it “a happy accident.”
“It was really having nothing else to turn to and also understanding, through [Peter Mark Roget’s] own voice in the preface, that this was published by just one guy, originally,” Bryant said.
Bryant, with illustrator Melissa Sweet, is the author of The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus — the first CLSC Young Readers selection of the season. Library director Scott Ekstrom, with actors from the Chautauqua Theater Company, will lead the program, which begins at 4:15 p.m. today in the Smith Memorial Library.
As a biographer, Bryant was able to appreciate Roget’s work of compiling lists of similar words when he wasn’t working as a doctor, an inventor and a lecturer. Roget is responsible for the original thesaurus — something still used each day.
Ekstrom said Week One’s book was chosen due to its high quality, despite the elementary reading level. He said the beautiful illustrations and Bryant’s prose captured a message that fits with this week’s theme, “21st-Century Literacies: Multiple Ways to Make Sense of the World.”
“It’s about words. That was kind of my deal,” Ekstrom said. “The love of words — that seems to be what young Peter Roget was about and was so fascinated by.”
Roget, as explained in The Right Word, lived from 1779 to 1869. Books became a sanctuary for him when his family frequently moved around, and he began to create lists of synonyms so people could find “just the right word.” Roget’s Thesaurus is still kept on desks and on bookshelves to this day, and although it has been updated countless times, his story still remains in those pages.
Bryant and Sweet are not newcomers to the Young Readers list. A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, the duo’s first work together, was selected for the CLSC Young Readers program in 2010.
“Going back to those sort of underground, subconscious, serendipitous things that happen sometimes in this business, it all comes back to heart — people who love books,” Bryant said. “We really love our subjects. Being chosen a second time, I think just reinforces the fact that passion and a true love of good literature — it changes people. It changed our lives.”
Sweet, who has illustrated three books with Bryant, said The Right Word is good for readers of all ages, and the illustrations help convey the minutia of Roget’s life.
“I feel that especially with somebody like Roget, it could’ve been so dense without the art,” Sweet said. “It’s provocative because it makes you think about all the things that have been invented and how remarkable it is that one person accomplished this.”
Sweet’s illustrations are a combination of paper collaging and hand lettering, all of which was done without the use of a computer or editing software. Her focus fell on creating lists after reading Roget’s thesaurus manuscript.
“The keyword for the whole book was ‘list.’ Everywhere I could create a list, I would,” Sweet said. “So however visually I could do that, with it being really alive, I would, and the collages begin to take over at a certain point.”
Sweet’s creative process in determining which parts of Roget’s story to bring to life changed as his time on earth did. For example, in the beginning of the book, Sweet illustrated a Latin list Roget compiled of animals with crude, child-like portrayals of zoo animals. Later on, there are lists of synonyms of the word “worry.”
“I say to myself, ‘Well it’s not very interesting to see just words handwritten, so let’s illustrate this list,’” Sweet said. “And it kind of goes on like that, but the list had to reflect his age, so as he got older, the lists change.”
The dual efforts of Sweet and Bryant have paid off. The Right Word received a 2015 Caldecott Honor and the 2015 Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Illustration.
Despite all the awards to be thankful for, Bryant is more grateful for readers.
“I always have to pause each day and take a look at letters that I get from kids or little things that I’ve tacked up on my desk with Scotch tape — just little notes from people who really are book lovers at heart,” Bryant said. “They hold books in a special place in their life, and they have sort of a reverence for the fact that literature can change people.”