Kid Lit Review of “Noah Webster’s Fighting Words” by Tracy Nelson Maurer

Noah Webster fought the American Revolution with his pen, as the author argues in this story:

“In his opinion, America needed to break away from Great Britain in every way. Politics. Trade. Even in its ways of speaking and spelling.”

To that end, he published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language in 1783, changing some British spellings and showing American pronunciations. He followed this up in the next two years with American Grammar and the American Reader. He featured the works of Americans in his books, and looked for more ways to make “American” separate from “English.” Thus, for example, he promulgated such usages as “jail” instead of “gaol” (successfully) and “riter” instead of “writer” (not so much).

He asked the U.S. Congress to pass laws making speaking and spelling uniform throughout the states, but Congress refused. He then tried to effect change through a dictionary. In 1806 he wrote a small dictionary with 40,600 entries, including some unique American words, such as chowder and skunk. [His philosophy – “descriptionist” rather than “prescriptionist” to dictate correct word usage – is still being debated to this day.]

In 1828, he published his pièce de résistance, An American Dictionary of the English Language. The author writes:

“No one, not another author, or even a king or queen, has ever successfully changed the spellings of as many English words as Noah Webster did for the new nation.”

“Today,” the author concludes, “a dictionary named after him is still published in America – with new words in every edition.”

An Author’s Note explains the author’s interest in Noah Webster and the research she undertook to write the book. Romanian illustrator Mircea Catusanu also includes a note, reporting on how he “opted for a collage style that incorporates realistic elements including some period drawings of objects, created over one hundred years ago by anonymous artists, as well as excerpts from period books, newspapers, and Noah’s original handwritten letters.” He also reveals that he tried using “a lighter approach” in drawing his characters, “aiming for an unexpected and hopefully amusing effect.”

The book concludes with a timeline, list of sources, and selected bibliography.

Evaluation: The interesting text and lively, collage-style illustrations will provide children with insight into how language evolves, as well as teaching them that the American Revolution was carried out in more unorthodox ways than just through military clashes. This can lead to many insights on the ways in which words, images, and art of all kinds can influence the course of history.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Millbrook Press, a division of Lerner Publishing Group, 2017

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2 Responses to Kid Lit Review of “Noah Webster’s Fighting Words” by Tracy Nelson Maurer

  1. I had no idea that’s why we spell some words differently than the Brits. I love the collage style illustrations!

  2. !!!! Omg, I need this book, because I didn’t know any of these things! (And I’ve seriously wondered what the deal was with gaol/jail!)

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