Book review: Noah Webster’s Fighting Words, by Tracy Nelson Mayer, illustrated by Mircea Catasanu, edited by Noah Webster

Mayer, Tracy Nelson. Noah Webster’s Fighting Words. Illus. by Mircea Catasanu. Ed. By Noah Webster. Millbrook, 2017. $19.99. unp. ISBN 978-1-4677-9410-7. Ages 8-10. P8Q8

Many young people still use the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but few may know that it exists because of Noah Webster, the lexicographer who established an American spelling, separate from the British spelling of the 18th century. As a teacher, he wanted to change the practice of education to teaching American geography, history, stories, and grammar. His first book, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, was published the year that the American Revolution ended, and his spelling book became the new nation’s first bestseller, perhaps because it spelled words like they sounded. For example, the “re” at the end of words changed to “er”; i.e., theater instead of theatre. Gaol became jail, and iz changed into is. Catasanu’s mixed-media illustrations depict Webster, Benjamin Franklin, and others with period drawings and excerpts of newspapers, books, and Webster’s letters. Also included are notes from the author and illustrator, timeline, sources, and more information.

Verdict: A delightful part of Mayer’s picture book is the use of her subject as an “editor” with his added quirky, arrogant corrections and comments marked over the original printing. A lively feel comes from the digitally collaged speech bubbles.

April 2017 review by Nel Ward.

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