I’m starting a series of short posts about children’s books I recommend. In each post, I will list five aspects of the text that strike me as memorable, magical, or noteworthy. My goal is to showcase great books while highlighting effective writing techniques.
To kick off the series, I present an award-winning, nonfiction picture book by Colleen Paeff. The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem is illustrated by Nancy Carpenter and published by Margaret K. McElderry Books (2021). This fascinating and fun book won an SCBWI Golden Kite Award and a Sibert Honor, among other accolades.
From the front flap:
“Something is in the air. In the summer of 1858, London’s River Thames STINKS. What is creating this revolting smell? The answer is gross: the river is full of poop.
“But the smell isn’t the worst problem. Every few years, cholera breaks out, and thousands of people die. Could there be a connection between the foul water and the deadly disease?”
What’s Novel or Noteworthy?
- Original topic: This is the first picture book I’ve read on 19th-century London’s sewage problem and the engineer who addressed it. Young children may have heard about water pollution, but this is likely their first introduction to civil engineering and sewage treatment.
- Adjective strings: In the first line of the story and at several key points later, Paeff inserts a string of adjectives instead of settling for one: “smelly, foul, fetid, rank, putrid, bad, or reeking” explains the stench. These unique strings feel almost like a refrain, punctuating the text at key points and adding a trademark touch. They’re also a droll way to boost vocabulary.
- Conversational address: The author speaks directly to the reader through clauses like “we’ll need to go back in time.” Her presence as a friendly narrator works well, especially as the text moves into technical problems and remedies.
- Pairing historic dates with present tense: By using dates as subheadings (1500, 1819, 1832, etc.), Paeff drops us into the past with four keystrokes. By using present tense, she creates a “you are there” feeling: “But there’s a bright spot in all this muck. It’s a baby boy named Joseph Bazalgette.”
- Descriptive details: The subject is inherently icky, but Paeff doesn’t flinch. As she notes in one line, Londoners drink contaminated water, letting “any visible gunk settle to the bottom of their glasses.” The YUCK factor delivers a playful punch.
On a Personal Note…
I met the author, Colleen Paeff, while traveling to the Beachside Nonfiction Retreat three years ago (May 2019). It was a great conference, featuring Candace Fleming and Jennifer Swanson. I remember Colleen telling me she was writing a book on the London sewer system. How exciting to see her idea grow into this fabulous book!