There has been a lot of Noah Webster love in kid lit lately. In 2015 there were two Noah Webster picture book biographies, Noah Webster and His Words and W is for Webster. And now comes a third, Noah Webster’s Fighting Words. I wouldn’t have thought there was room for yet another Webster biography, but I was thoroughly charmed by this one.
This book, like the others, has lively language and is filled with compelling quotations. But all of the content in this book is commented upon in parenthetical notes by Noah Webster. The author explains in the back matter, “While Noah’s ghost is fictitious, all of his comments here are based on what biographers know about this bold, passionate, and visionary patriot.” And since all of his comments are put in Post-it note-like asides, it’s easy to distinguish the nonfiction content from the fictional commentary.
Noah Webster’s commentary allows for funny moments, such as when the text says, “Noah argued A LOT” and the commentary next to it explains, “I was simply helping people to see the right point of view.” Webster also lines out less complimentary parts of the main text:
Behind his back, people called Noah “the Monarch” for his bossy attitude. The press said he was an “incurable lunatic” and a “spiteful viper.” Noah often lost his tmper when someone disagreed with him. He did not take criticism well.
Webster’s marginal note next to this passage is “Delete!”
I especially loved that Webster’s marginalia isn’t limited to the text of the book. We see his notes and comments on the cover of the book, on the title page, on the copyright page, on the endpapers, and on the jacket flap. I had a lot of fun searching out all the spots where he had something to say, and it occurred to me that this would also be a fun way to introduce different parts of a book to young readers, especially using techniques like Megan Dowd Lambert suggests in Reading Picture Books with Children.
The book devotes three and a half spreads to back matter, including a timeline, source quotations, and discussions of some of the types of sources used in research. My favorite part of the back matter was the Illustrator’s Note where Mircea Catusanu talks about some of the inherent difficulties of doing art for nonfiction books. I was also tickled that he did collages for this book, as I’ve been thinking a lot about collage art in nonfiction picture books since my upcoming picture book has collage art too–but with a very different tone than in this book!
I love knowing that three fun picture book biographies on the same subject can peacefully coexist on library shelves. Even better, maybe they can sometimes get out of the library to play together!
Noah Webster’s Fighting Words by Tracy Nelson Maurer, illustrated by Mircea Catusanu. Millbrook Press: 2017.