ROCKPORT – When children’s book illustrator Melissa Sweet begins a new biography, she wants to know what her subject was like long before they achieved the things that made them noteworthy.

“What is the link between what we know of this person today and what they were like as children? Most of the time, there is a link,” she said.

Sweet found an obsessive little boy when she researched “The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus.”

Peter Mark Roget’s father died young, and little Peter threw himself into his books. At 8, he began writing. But instead of writing stories, Peter wrote lists.

Lots of lists.

Over a lifetime, he made a list of 1,000 non-alphabetized words that expressed a concept of “human-beingness.” That list became the book we know today as “Roget’s Thesaurus.”

Published in 1852, it remains an important writing tool. The thesaurus groups words according to common meaning and helps writers find the precise word to express an idea.

“The Right Word,” released this month with author Jen Bryant, is the latest book for Sweet, an award-winning illustrator who has lived in Rockport 14 years. Among her books is “A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams,” which was named a Caldecott Honor Book in 2009, and “Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade,” which won a Sibert Medal in 2012. “The Right Word” was a Kirkus Prize finalist in the young reader’s category. Sweet talked about her process and passion in Rockport shortly before traveling to Austin, Texas, Thursday to attend the Kirkus ceremonies.

Q: How did you end up in Rockport?

A: I moved to Rockport about 14 years ago. I left Portland because I got remarried, and my partner brought me to Rockport. I wanted to live in a town. I needed to be able to walk to the library and walk for a cup of coffee, so I did not want to be too rural. Rockport is perfect. It’s like living in a children’s book. It’s an active arts town and a wonderful little community.

Q: Where did the idea for “The Right Word” come from?

A: Jen and I had worked together on two previous books, and we talked about this book long before we began it. She was on a road trip and meant to grab a novel but grabbed the thesaurus instead. On this long highway trip, she began to read the thesaurus. She said, ‘I’ve got to find out more.'”

Q: Was there a particular challenge in creating this book?

A: When you are faced with illustrating a writer, you can’t necessarily show them writing page after page. That’s their activity, but it’s not very exciting. So I concentrated on his list-making, which was really the definition of who he was. He started at a very young age and just kept going. It’s something he did to calm himself and give him something to do. His family was not a bed of roses. He lost his father at a young age, and I think making lists was an activity that kept his mind occupied.

Q: Do you illustrate a lot of biographies for children?

A: I’d say half of my work is biographies. It is overwhelmingly interesting. I feel so lucky to do the research. I feel like I learn so much with each person, and each book requires a different take. It’s a lot of fun, and this book was particularly fun.

Q: Why?

A: For one thing, I went to California. The original thesaurus is in the hands of a private collector who has a manuscript museum. It’s just a small delicate, hand-written book. I was dying to see his handwriting, which was not that legible. I couldn’t imagine mimicking that in the book. But then I realized those 1,000 words all represented concepts of human-beingness, starting with ‘Existence’ and ending with ‘Temple,’ from 1 to 1,000. When I saw that, I realized he had classified words the way Linnaeus classified plants and animals. When I realized that, I had to sit down. I had to catch my breath. That’s the book. This is what the art is, the lists themselves. That’s the book.

Q: How long did this one take?

A: The better part of nine months, which is a long time for me. I do two books a year, usually.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a biography of E.B. White for children. It’s the most astonishing project I have ever worked on, and I don’t take one second of it for granted. I was just out walking with my dogs, and I thought, ‘If I could illustrate a book about anyone in the world, who would it be?’ And I thought, E.B. White. He was some writer. He did all that writing for the New York Times and all those essays, but he also wrote for children. Where do those children stories come from? They don’t come from the ether. What led up to him writing those stories? I was so curious how they came about, and what was going on in his life that made him want to write those stories.

Q: You have won and been nominated for big awards. What do those awards mean to you?

A: Awards are a huge acknowledgment that we did our job and it reverberates with teachers and librarians for children, and that’s the whole point of doing a great book. It will be used over and over again in the classroom. It’s exciting to know a book is going to be used that way.

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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