Tales of a History Nerd by Sarah Albee

Hello, Nerdy Book Clubbers!

My name is Sarah Albee, and I’m honored to be here today.

I love reading (and writing about) history—social history, especially—and I want kids to love it, too. As a writer, I especially want to reach that ever-elusive population of kids who think they hate to read, let alone read history.

On my daily history blog, targeted at middle-grade readers, I’ve written about royal purple robes that were dyed with snail snot, why people seldom smile in old photosthe eighteenth century Gin Crazehow the fun-loving Minoans enjoyed bull-jumpinga queen who may have been murdered with poisoned scented glovesdebtors’ prisonslocust swarmshow Lewis and Clark relied on mercury-laden laxative pills called Thunderclapperswhy dimes and quarters have notcheshair shirtsarsenic poisoning, and why small boys were once forced to wear dresses.  In short, stuff that middle schoolers aren’t likely to read about in their social studies textbooks.

At pretty much every school visit I do, someone (usually a grownup) asks me why I chose to write a book about poop. Well! Here’s my chance to give a more in-depth answer! Let’s examine my early influences—cue the rippley screen and harp arpeggios—what I read as a kid, and how I came to be drawn to this and other offbeat topics.

Me and my three siblings. I’m on the right.

I was the youngest of four kids, and by the time I showed up, my parents had sort of run out of gas as far as actual parenting went, let alone mustering the energy to read me a book. So I did a ton of reading on my own. By the time I reached middle school, I was reading fiction, nonfiction, kid books, grownup books—especially Dickens—detective thrillers, Gothic novels, the encyclopedia—well, you get the idea.

And yet–although there was not a lot of parental reading-aloud going on, both my parents were fantastic storytellers. I was exposed to a lot of spoken history.

My mother, a first generation Italian, and the oldest of five kids, grew up in poverty, in a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She catapulted herself through high school and City College with straight As and a fierce determination to make something of herself. I think for her, reading for pleasure was a form of indolence. Forget sitting down and reading. I never saw her sit down, period. She sewed all our clothes, baked bread every Sunday, cooked from-scratch meals during an era when that was not yet fashionable, and oh, yeah, became a college professor. But as I said, she could also tell a story.

My Italian Grandparents

Some of her stories were lovely. Like how she crept out of the bed she shared with her four siblings extra early, to greet her father as he came home from an all-night shift. The two of them would sit together in the tiny kitchen and share a cup of strong black coffee with a slab of thickly-buttered bread. My grandfather let her dunk the bread into the coffee, until the surface was a buttery swirl.

But some of her stories were harrowing. Like the time she trained two pigeons to fly to her window ledge whenever she whistled for them. One day they didn’t appear. She knocked on the neighbors’ doors, hoping the pigeons were just confused and had shown up at the wrong window. They had. The upstairs neighbor, a large, unpleasant woman, told my mother she’d wrung their necks and cooked them for her supper.

From my mother, I developed a fascination for immigrants’ stories, the lives of working class people, and what daily life was like in urban centers, in the U.S. and elsewhere.

My father, also a professor, didn’t read to me often, but when he did, his selections tended to be about the poor and downtrodden, like The Little Match Girl and The Happy Prince (I tear up at the mere mention of these stories). More often, he’d talk to me about public health pioneers and social reformers, like Jacob Riis, and Thorstein Veblen. My favorite bedtime story was about John Snow and the Broad Street Pump. From my father, I became fascinated by germ theory, public health, epidemiology, and—again—the plight of the working poor, an underrepresented group in most history books. In my Poop book, I try to give these people a voice. (And John Snow is one of my “Hygiene Heroes.”)

And nowadays—cue the harp arpeggios and cut back to present day—my choice of writing topics is equally influenced by what my own kids like—or don’t like—to read.

I have one child who will read anything that isn’t nailed down, and two children who would rather clean Yankee Stadium with a toothbrush than open up a book (and they’re Mets fans). They’re beyond Reluctant Readers. They’re Really Recalcitrant Readers. And back in middle school, they loathed reading history above all else. This pained me, because I am a writer, and it pained my husband, because he is a history teacher.

So, having spawned such children, I moved away from preschool books and resolved to write interesting, compelling nonfiction for middle grade kids. My mission is to write for kids like my sons–kids who think they hate history. My mission is to make history interesting. To make it relevant. And to make kids realize that history matters. (My kids actually read nonfiction now without howling.) My forthcoming book, due out next year, is about the effect of insects on human history.

I don’t consider myself a writer of narrative nonfiction. I like to think I write humorous history. But at heart, I still love a good story, and hope that it shows in my writing. My Poop book isn’t really a book about poop. (Psst! Don’t tell!) It’s about the history of human civilizations from ancient times to present day, and how people dealt with the vexing problems of how to dispose of their waste. It’s about diseases like plague and cholera and typhus and polio; it’s about what people wore, what people ate and drank, and public health, and the Industrial Revolution. But kids don’t have to know that right off the bat. If I can hook them into opening my book by asking them how a knight went to the bathroom in a suit of armor, I’ll feel I have succeeded.

Sarah Albee’s most recent nonfiction book is called Poop Happened! A History of the World from the Bottom Up. Her next nonfiction book, due out in Spring, 2013, is tentatively titled Bugged: How Insects Have Affected Human History. She also writes fiction from preschool through middle grade. You can find her history blog at http://www.sarahalbeebooks.com/blog/, follow her on Twitter at @sarahalbee, and visit her Pinterest boards at http://pinterest.com/sarahalbeebooks/.

Sarah is offering a signed copy of her book and SKYPE visit to one of our lucky readers! Fill in the form below for a chance to win!