The Great Stink by Colleen Paeff

Cover image for The Great Stink.

The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem by Colleen Paeff, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (9781534449299)

It was 1858 and the Thames River in London smelled terrible. The problem was that the river was full of poop. The problem had started in 1500, when the sewers were emptied by men who shoveled them out at night. But the population kept on growing. By 1919, there were many more people in London and flush toilets are growing in popularity, but there is no way to get rid of all of the human feces, so some people connected their homes directly to the sewer, sending it all to the river. Cholera epidemics started killing thousands of people, but cholera is blamed on smelly air rather than polluted water, so they kept happening. In 1856, Bazalgette submits a plan to create large sewer pipes to take the sewage away from the river. His plan is finally approved in 1858 after a very hot summer causes the smell to get even worse.

Told with a merry tone, this book embraces the stink of history and shows how one man can change the lives of so many, rescuing them from disease and death. Paeff packs a lot of history into this picture book, making it all readable and fascinating through her use of historical quotes combined with a focused pared down version of what happened. Her writing is engaging and interesting, offering lots of information without ever overwhelming the story itself.

Carpenter’s art is just as stinky as can be. She captures the sewage entering the Thames, the miasma of stench coming off the river in the heat, and the grossness of dumped chamber pots. Against that unclean setting, a small baby is born and becomes an engineer who creates grand tunnels where the air is clear once again. Add in the macabre face of cholera and you have a book that is hard to look away from.

Fascinating, stinky and delightful. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Margaret K. McElderry Books.

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