Nonfiction books for kids on poop and Mark Twain

By Abby McGanney Nolan
Sunday, June 20, 2010; BW11


A History of the World from the Bottom Up

By Sarah Albee Illustrated by Robert Leighton

Walker. Paperback, $15.99; ages 9 and up


A History of the World from the Bottom Up

By Sarah Albee Illustrated by Robert Leighton

Walker. Paperback, $15.99; ages 9 and up.

Full of scatological facts, jokey illustrations and groan-inducing puns ("The Origin of Feces," anyone?), this entertaining chronicle also sneaks in plenty of information about disease, science and communal living since hunters and gatherers decided to stop roaming and settle down. Discerning readers will be happily disgusted by sidebars about smelly castle moats and occupations that involved scavenging in sewers. And no one will miss the immense significance of clean water and decent plumbing.

In her chatty, informative style, Sarah Albee shows that civilization didn't evolve in a straight line. In medieval Europe, the ancient Roman plumbing system was thrown over in favor of filth and sanitary superstition. Insects combined with bad sewage systems to kill more people than wars did, and the habits of the upper classes were neither hygienic (King Louis XIV had two baths in his entire adult life) nor easy on servants (who had to handle all sorts of cleaning up). Albee has dug deep into the past (the book also features plenty of edifying archival photos and illustrations); but, in closing, she also touches on the future: new technology for toilets and diapers as well as the perils of accumulated waste. It's a dirty world, and someone's got to wade through it.


(According to Susy)

By Barbara Kerley

Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

Scholastic, $17.99; ages 9 - 12

Mark Twain, one of the fathers of American literature, was also parent to one Susy Clemens, who decided at age 13 to fix the popular impression of her father. People "think of Mark Twain as a humorist, joking at everything. . . . I never saw a man with so much variety of feeling as Papa has." Within this inspired picture book are passages from Susy's biography (sewn into the seam as mini books), which she began in secret before gaining full cooperation from her subject.

Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham have collaborated before on a book about a spirited daughter ("What to Do About Alice?"), but even Alice Roosevelt would take a backseat to Mark Twain. Kerley nicely sets up Susy's biography with her text, and Fotheringham's illustrations bring both father and daughter to life (even when young Samuel Clemens is shown pretending "to be dying so as not to have to go to school").

In one of the book's many handsome spreads, Fotheringham presents the Twain's Victorian Gothic residence as a huge dollhouse open to view. Susy's observations about her father -- how he conferred with their cats, how he paced and speechified at dinner, and how he threw his shirts out of the window when they were missing buttons -- are all depicted as happening at once so that six Twains, five Susys and at least 9 cats are visible. Perhaps this full-to-bursting book will lead some young readers to write their own in-house biographies over the summer. Just in case, Kerley includes instructions.

Abby McGanney Nolan frequently reviews for Book World.

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