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.

Review: The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson

great trouble

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson

Things have been a lot worse for Eel in the past, he now has a place off of the streets where he can sleep safely and he only goes to the River Thames to dig for things to sell to make ends meet.  He has serious responsibilities that he keeps entirely private.  It helps that he faked his own death to get Fisheye Bill Tyler off of his trail.  But Eel still keeps his street smarts and listens, so he knows that Fisheye is back after him.  Then in the summer of 1854, his entire world turns upside down and the Great Trouble begins as the Blue Death of cholera comes right into his neighborhood in London.  Everyone knows that it is spread through the air, but one doctor, that Eel does small chores for, thinks differently.  Now it is up to Eel to help the doctor prove that it is the water that carries the disease before hundreds more die.

Celebrating the visionary Dr. John Snow on the 200th anniversary of his birth, this book successfully mixes historical fact with historical fiction resulting in a dynamic book with engaging characters.  At the outset of the book, Hopkinson takes care to make sure that readers understand what living in poverty and parentless was like in Victorian England.  She shows the filth, the danger, the loneliness and the skill that it took to survive. 

Eel is a wonderful protagonist.  He is incredibly smart, driven to help those he cares for, and a mixture of brave and desperate, something that keeps him at the center of this medical mystery.  Hopkinson does a great job of keeping all of her characters true to the time period, offering no modern sensibilities into the equation, but presenting it just as it would have been. 

This is a dark and thrilling novel that will not let you escape until the epidemic is over and the mystery solved.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.