Cover of Noah Webster's Fighting Words shows Noah Webster holding an enormous quill penThere 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.

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

W is for Webster cover showing Noah Webster peeking out through the pages of a bookA dictionary scholar is a tough sell as a picture book subject. Where’s the action?  What’s the illustrator going to illustrate? Sitting around writing and reading? W is for Webster tells the story of sitting around writing and reading with whimsy and humor.

Fern picks out whimsical details to tell the story of Webster’s life–as a child “Noah spooked the cows by reciting Latin” and he gets sent to school on a “swaybacked mare.” She comments wryly on his propensity to use impressive words–“This is an example of Noah talking big.”

Boris Kulikov’s illustrations are equally whimsical. He illustrates Webster literally–with shovel in hand–digging up words. To depict his research, he shows Webster diving into an over-sized volume and pulling out handfuls of text.

I was surprised and delighted by how engaging it was to read about someone sitting around reading and writing in this picture book!

Another great recent picture book biography is Noah Webster and His Words. It would be a great activity to read both of these texts and invite students to compare and contrast them and to think about why the authors and illustrators made the choices they did. Jeri Chase Ferris has a nice collection of Noah Webster activities and information at her site. 

W is for Webster: Noah Webster and His American Dictionary by Tracey Fern, illustrated by Boris Kulikov. Margaret Ferguson Books: 2015

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, holding pistols, face each other, ready to duel.“Aaron and Alexander could have been friends. They were alike in many ways. But the ways in which they were different made them the worst of enemies.”

So begins Don Brown’s fascinating comparison of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, culminating in the events that led to their infamous duel. Brown’s language is solid and serious–as befits a topic like this–but his art has an unpolished, slapdash quality to it that keeps the book from miring. The first spreads are carefully constructed to always show us Aaron on the left side, compared to Alexander on the right side. Brown shows the many similarities between the two even while he points out the differences in personality between them.

The careful design of the book in the first spreads actually ended up confusing me at the climactic moment, when Burr decides he must issue a challenge to Hamilton, because for the first time, the illustration shows Hamilton on the left and Burr on the right. I had to go back to figure out which one was which.

The spreads with the duel are very carefully designed, with each character at the extreme edge of his page, facing the other over a wide expanse of empty page. We turn the page and see a close-up of each gun, pointing across the gutter of the page at the other gun, exploding “Bang!”

The book ends with Burr’s quiet regret: “I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”

I would have liked to have the sources of the quotations (used very effectively in the text!) in the back matter, but even with that lack, I loved this book.

Don Brown’s website.

Aaron and Alexander: The Most Famous Duel in American History, by Don Brown. (Roaring Brook Press: 2015)

mesmerizedThis elegantly-constructed story tells about Ben Franklin’s visit to France during the Revolutionary War and his encounter with the healer Franz Anton Mesmer. Along the way, we see the scientific method in action and see how every step applies to a real life experience, learn about blind studies and the placebo effect, and learn where the word “mesmerized” actually comes from. It was a historical story I didn’t know, and Mesmer was a historical character I’d never heard of. Rockliff paints him vividly and sympathetically but Ben Franklin is the hero.

And the kids reading the book may approach those science class discussions of the scientific method with entirely new eyes.

Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. Candlewick: 2015.

gingerbreadThis is an inspiring story about a Revolutionary War patriot who fought by firing up his ovens and feeding the troops. The back matter tells a bit more about how his generosity and commitment to the American cause probably helped woo Hessian mercenaries over to the side of the Americans. Vincent X. Hirsch’s illustrations wonderfully follow the gingerbread theme.\

Gingerbread for Liberty: How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Vincent X. Hirsch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2015.



Ben Franklin  This book is based on a passage in a letter (helpfully included in the book’s back matter) where Franklin describes his youthful invention of a swimming aid: swim fins and flippers! Using that single paragraph as her starting point, Barb Rosenstock imagines the process young Ben Franklin–or anyone–would follow to invent something new.

The book is a buoyant read. Every page is filled with “s” alliteration in lists of verbs telling what Franklin did to develop his invention:

speculated…stared…sprinted away

sketched…snapped up…shaped…sanded…strung on…strapped on

sprinted…stood…stripped off…strapped…stuck…spread…stomped…splashed in…sunk

And this is just the beginning of the “s” lists! Many of the verbs are helpfully highlighted, which would make this book a dream to teach in a lesson on alliteration.

Ben’s invention doesn’t really work that well. In fact, you could say it was a belly flop. But Rosenstock’s text leaves us with a shiver of giddiness rather than a feeling of defeat.

It’s a fun story about the process of invention, the scientific method, and one of America’s founding father. What’s not to like?

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by S.D. Schindler. Calkins Creek: 2014

This brilliantly written book explores the differences and similarities between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and how they helped shape their cooperation in making a new nation. The book starts with a strong opening:

The true story of how one gentleman–short and stout–and another–tall and lean–formed a surprising alliance, committed treason, and helped launch a new nation.

Kerley uses that lively narrative voice through the book. She chooses strong, interesting words that make the text leap to life:

He lunged, parried, and skewered the policies of King George and his government.

Her quotations, deftly woven in, make the two men spring to life:

“You should do it,” Tom told him. “Oh! No,” John exclaimed. Any declaration he wrote would be severely criticized, for some delegates, he conceded, found him “obnoxious.”

I felt weepy by the end of the back matter, stunned with gratitude for the foolish and human but visionary men who built the United States.

Those Rebels, John and Tom, by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic: 2012.

thomas-jefferson-life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-of-everything-12Illustrator Maira Kalman follows up her 2012 book about Lincoln (Looking at Lincoln) with a look at another president, Thomas Jefferson. Once again, the narrator’s voice is memorable and spunky, but while the Lincoln book had a childlike narrator, this book sounds like your quirky Aunt Edna telling you stuff:

But wait. We have not spoken of the Founding of America.

It’s a good choice for a biography tackling the confusing inconsistencies of Jefferson the visionary, the patriot, the slaveholder, and the philanderer.

The book competently guides its reader on a tour of Jefferson’s life. It’s organized by theme, each group of spreads looking at a different facet of Jefferson’s interests, passions, or accomplishments. There’s no bibliography and no source notes, but the real treat is Kalman’s candy-colored illustrations.

And Aunt Edna’s not a bad tour guide for a visit to a remarkable and troubling life.

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman. Nancy Paulsen Books: 2014.