PHEW – A Picture Book About a Stinky Subject

Lynngreat stink: Say the word “poop” and you get every kid’s attention. But of course, the management and disposal of poop is a critically important health issue for people everywhere.  So how do you help kids learn about the serious facts behind this stinky subject—all the while acknowledging that the giggles are inevitable? Colleen Paeff has the answer with her wonderful picture book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (S&S/Margaret McElderry, 2021). Paeff’s fascinating story of the brilliantly innovative engineer Joseph Bazalgette who truly saved London from its offal self is guaranteed to captivate and inform young readers—all without anyone having to hold their noses!

Told with a smile and engaging language, the history will make kids laugh but at the same time clearly delivers important facts about health and history. For most American kids, plumbing is a given and the protection the system provides us mostly out of mind with each flush. The reality for both history and many countries even today, is of course, another story.

Paeff focuses her story on London, beginning in 1500 with an introduction as to what passed for sanitation then. People in those days put human waste into deep cesspools in their basements and hired “nightsoil men” to come dig out and carry away the poop when it got too deep. Yuck!!! In 1819, when Bazalgette is born, flush toilets were just beginning to catch on but all the sewage goes directly into the Thames. A series of cholera outbreaks kills many Londoners who blame the disease on the bad air or misasmas while continuing to drink the polluted water. By 1850, Joseph Bazalgette, now an engineer, disagrees and he thinks he knows how to help.

But the city fathers didn’t agree and it took a lot of years, Bazalgette’s persistence, and a summer heat wave that produced an event called The Great Stink in 1858 to get his plan approved! But soon, thanks to Joseph Bazalgette, the London sewer system is flush with success!

Cindy: I don’t think I can keep up with Lynn’s stream of sewage metaphors but I do agree with her assessment of this important book. It’s hard to make such a putrid topic a joy to read, but Paeff has done it and Nancy Carpenter’s illustrations are the perfect touch to keep young readers flipping through the filth. The watercolor and ink artwork depict detailed scenes starting with the title page showing the royal “throne” occupied by the queen reading a newspaper! Plumbing pipes snake across later pages while earlier pages show Londoners using umbrellas to protect more from chamber pots being emptied than rain falling. Gross! But history isn’t always pretty, eh?

Knighted Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s story comes to an end in this book in 1874, but added backmatter includes an update on “Poop Polution Today” with tips for readers that include building a rain garden, planting trees, and touring a wastewater treatment plant, small acts to help prevent water pollution. There’s also a “Detailed Timeline,” a list of “Further Reading, and a “Selected Bibliography” for children and adults who want to learn more. My husband works in the wastewater industry, and we live on the water downriver from a large city that still struggles with sewage overflow into the river after big storms. Bazalgette was a hero, but it will take many more heroes to keep our waters safe. It’s never too early to be informed, and reading The Great Stink is a great start. 

One thought on “PHEW – A Picture Book About a Stinky Subject

  1. Thank you, Lynn and Cindy, for this thoughtful review!! I guess I missed it when it came out last month. “Bazalgette was a hero, but it will take many more heroes to keep our waters safe. It’s never too early to be informed…” I couldn’t agree more!

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