Kirkus Reviews, May 2014
After award-winning collaborations about poet William Carlos Williams and artist Horace Pippin, Bryant and Sweet return to investigate the life of Peter Mark Roget.
Born in London in 1779, Roget was plagued by lifelong setbacks. His father died early; his mother was unstable. Frequent moves and pronounced shyness engendered solace in books. Partial to classifying his knowledge and experiences, Peter composed his first book of lists by age 8. Inspired by the taxonomy of Swedish physician and botanist Linnaeus, teenage Peter studied medicine in Scotland, eventually establishing a practice in London, and he worked on a book of word classifications, completing it in 1805 for his own reference. Roget lectured, invented (the slide rule and the pocket chess set) and, inspired by the publication of several contemporary, inferior books of lists, returned to his own. His Thesaurus, published in 1852 and nurtured by his descendants, has never gone out of print. Bryant’s prose is bright and well-tuned for young readers. She goes gently, omitting Roget’s darkest traumas, such as witnessing his uncle’s suicide. Sweet tops herself—again!—visually reflecting Roget’s wide range as a thinker and product of the Enlightenment. Injecting her watercolor palette with shots of teal, scarlet and fuchsia, Sweet embeds vintage bits (ledger paper, type drawers, botanical illustrations and more), creating a teeming, contemplative, playfully celebratory opus.
In a word: marvelous! (chronology, author’s and illustrator’s notes, selected bibliography, suggested reading, quotation sources, photograph of manuscript page)
Publishers Weekly, September 2014
The award-winning team behind A River of Words takes on the story of British physician Peter Mark Roget, author of the eponymous thesaurus. Bryant draws a clear line from the dislocations of Roget’s youth—the death of his father in 1783 and the family’s frequent moves thereafter—to his need for order as he starts making lists of words. “Words, Peter learned, were powerful things. And when he put them into long, neat rows, he felt as if the world itself clicked into order.” Yet Roget wasn’t merely a reclusive scholar. He meant for his thesaurus to have a democratizing effect: “I want everyone to be able to use my word book, not just doctors, politicians, and lawyers, but cobblers, fishmongers, and factory workers.” Sweet envisions Roget’s work as a shadow box crammed with the wonders of the natural world, adorned with exuberant hand-lettered typography. Together with Bryant’s sympathetic account, Sweet’s gentle riot of images and words humanizes the man behind this ubiquitous reference work and demystifies the thesaurus itself.
Booklist, August 2014
Bryant’s and Sweet’s talents combine to make the lowly thesaurus fascinating in this beautifully illustrated picture-book biography of Peter Mark Roget. Born in the late eighteenth century, shy Roget was prone to wandering alone and began keeping lists of words at a young age. Even as he went to medical school and became a talented and respected physician, he still kept his book of word lists, gradually improving on the concept until he published his first thesaurus, classified thematically rather than alphabetically as it is today, in 1852. Echoing Roget’s obsession with words, Sweet’s intricate and elaborate collage illustrations—made out of textbooks, graph paper, maps, fabric, typewriter keys, and other found objects—put words on center stage. Lists in wildly expressive handwritten fonts along with cut-paper assemblages stuff the dynamic pages, even the appended time line and endpapers, with arresting detail. Pivotal moments in Roget’s life get a similar treatment: terms related to plants bloom in tendrils around a watercolor illustration of Roget on one of his many walks. In brilliant pages teeming with enthusiasm for language and learning, Bryant and Sweet (A Splash of Red, 2013) joyfully celebrate curiosity, the love of knowledge, and the power of words.—Sarah Hunter
School Library Journal, October 2014
Those who have relied upon a thesaurus (meaning treasure house in Greek), either in print or through the tool menu of word processing software, will gain a greater appreciation for the reference tool in this beautifully designed picture book biography of its creator, Peter Roget. Bryant describes bibliophile Roget, taking him from a timid, studious child who was always compiling lists to an accomplished doctor who by 1805 had compiled the beginnings of the first thesaurus. Busy and exuberant, Sweet’s charming watercolor illustrations, layered over collages of vintage images and fonts, capture Roget’s passion for classification while also providing readers new opportunities for discovery (Latin translations of animal names, mathematical terms, and a plethora of synonyms). Expertly researched and well written, Bryant’s narrative not only details the creation of the thesaurus; it also conveys a sense of Roget the man: his shy nature, his keen intelligence, and his passion for knowledge. There truly was a particular blend of artistry and intellect that went into Roget’s book, as evidenced from a reproduced page from the original thesaurus. The book contains extensive back matter, including an incredibly detailed time line that goes into the man’s other inventions (the slide rule, the pocket chess set) and an author and illustrator’s note, as well as Roget quotations that are sure to inspire if not a love of language then at least a search for the perfect turn of phrase. An excellent illustrated biography. —Joanna K. Fabicon, Los Angeles Public Library
The Horn Book, November/December 2014
Apt language and ingenious imagery combine to tell the life story of Peter Mark Roget, creator of the thesaurus. A solitary, though not unhappy, child, Roget spends his time keeping lists and ordering the natural and cultural wonders he finds in abundance. He studies to become a doctor, teaches, joins academic societies, raises a family, and continues to capture and classify the universe, eventually publishing his Thesaurus, a catalog of concepts ordered by ideas, in 1852. Bryant’s linear telling follows Peter closely, expressing his curiosity, sensitivity, and populist spirit in language that is both decorous and warm. Clever book design and visionary illustration add layers of meaning, as images come together in careful sequence. On the cover a cacophony of iconographic ideas explodes from the pages of a book. The opening endpapers arrange these same concepts in a vertical collage that recalls spines on a bookshelf. The title spread features the letters of the alphabet as stacked blocks, as a child manages them, and from there the pages grow in complexity, as Roget himself grows up. Sweet embellishes her own gentle watercolors with all manner of clippings and realia, corralling the pictures into order according to concept, number, or color. A timeline and detailed author and illustrator notes follow the narrative, with suggested additional resources and a facsimile page of Roget’s first, handwritten book of lists. And the closing endpapers, with the comprehensive classification scheme of the first thesaurus, fully realize the opening organizational promise. —Thom Barthelmess
The New York Times, November 9, 2014
Ten years ago, The Right Word, a picture-book life of Peter Mark Roget, inventor of the thesaurus, would have been a publishing non-starter — a project “too special” for the market to bear. Happily, all that has changed, and we now have this spirited portrait of the Swiss-born Victorian who found an ingenious way to help people say what they mean. Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet, whose previous collaborations include biographies of William Carlos Williams and Horace Pippin, have done their homework and considered their audience. Bryant allows the early death of Roget’s father, when the boy was 4, to stand for a whole series of family crises that turned him inward from an early age and prompted Roget to adopt obsessive list-making as a self-protective strategy long before it became his life work. The narrative moves swiftly, with Bryant deftly hinting that Roget’s immersion in the English language’s superabundance of synonyms had everything to do with his lifelong struggle to come to terms with his challenging — depressing? impossible? — family. Sweet’s richly layered graphics frame the basic narrative drawings in collaged bits and pieces of calligraphy, antique engraving, archival maps, bookbinding remnants and other evocative oddments that collectively provide an attic-glimpse into the mind of a restless man whose vast vocabulary could barely keep pace with his curiosity. —Leonard Marcus (Read the full review.)
The Washington Post, November 4 2014
"Treasure-house" is an apt translation of the Latin word “thesaurus,” so it’s fitting that this picture-book biography of the most famous thesaurus-maker would itself be a treasure house — full of well-chosen anecdotes and inventive illustrations. As with their previous collaborations, Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet have tailored their telling to their subject and convey the variety of phenomena that intrigued Roget throughout his life. Shaped by the early death of his father as well as his own shyness, as a child Roget found solace in gathering and organizing information. When he was able to classify words and concepts into long, neat rows, Bryant writes, "the world itself clicked into order." Roget was a doctor and an active member of the scientific community before he became a popular author with the publication in 1852 of his thesaurus. Using watercolor, mixed-media and collage, Sweet creates images that cleverly signal how words pervaded and enlarged Roget’s life. In one town scene, for instance, the roofs are made of thesaurus pages. Young readers will see that each page of this book, like each page of "Roget’s Thesaurus," contains multitudes.
—Abby McGanney Nolan
The team behind A River of Words offers a fascinating picture-book biography of Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869), who collected words from the age of eight and published his famous Thesaurus at age 73.
Everything about the book's elegant design reinforces Roget's passion for list-making and his search for the mot juste: "Words, Peter learned, were powerful things. And when he put them in long, neat rows, he felt as if the world itself clicked into order."
Melissa Sweet hand-letters much of the text, echoing young Peter's handwritten lists, and Jen Bryant's spare, poetic narrative similarly winds down the page in one-word lines. For instance, a vertical textual timeline traces Roget's life from infancy to "maturity," and appears to the right of a quintet of portraits of Peter as a baby through to a bespectacled elder. Author and artist similarly chart Peter's 24-day journey in 1783 with his mother, sister and uncle from Switzerland to London as a kind of calendar in horizontal list form. Jet-black backdrops and forested landscapes foreshadow Peter's realization that "Father wasn't coming back."
By age eight, "Instead of writing stories, he wrote lists." In one standout spread that includes "The Four Elements," Sweet's vertical-panel representation will jumpstart children with any inclination toward recording their thoughts in words or pictures. The levels of "earth," in varying shades of brown, and the volcano that symbolizes "fire" sandwich the deep blue of the ocean ("water") and the sky-blue of "air." This collage of discrete lists integrates colors ("things that are green"), motion ("things that fly") and an inset image of Peter's mother confiding to a friend her concern about her son's constant "scribbling."
But readers quickly observe how Peter's lists help him make sense of his world.
Bryant and Sweet place his life in a larger context. While Peter makes his lists, Linnaeus creates a system of classification (kingdom, phylum, class, etc.), and Napoleon's soldiers "marched lockstep in long, orderly rows, just like the lists in Peter's book." Like their earlier subject, William Carlos Williams, Peter Roget was a doctor by day and devoted wordsmith by night. A final spread, presented in a kind of shadow box, serves as the pièce de résistance, with visual and textual ideas linking like gears in Roget's brain--making manifest his belief that "everyone should be able to find the right word whenever they needed it." The story of this passionate man's life will inspire budding artists and writers. –Jennifer M. Brown.