Review: The Great Stink By Paeff & Carpenter

Who would have thought that a non-fiction book about the sewer system of London would be so fun and fascinating? Well, this one sure is. An informative and intriguing book about Joseph Bazalgette who helped solve the poop pollution problem in London, The Great Stink by Colleen Paeff, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, 2021, is a surprisingly excellent picture book. Take a look with me.

I’m not a huge non-fiction book reader myself, but if I have to read one, I love the addition of pictures and picture books are the best of course! This book about London’s poop situation was a hilarious historical account.

“No matter how you describe it—
smelly, foul, fetid, rank, putrid, bad, or reeking—
in the summer of 1858, London’s River Thames STANK.”

A full spread of the Thames with the London skyline in the background and a group of white historically dressed Londoners holding their noses with fans and handkerchiefs in the foreground.

And with that brilliant opening line, the book goes back in time to show us how London got to this stinky point.

It first looks at 1500 when London was not as populated and their sewers were meant for rainwater instead of well, waste water. It’s a disgusting point in history, made even worse through the years as London’s population exploded.

By the early 1800s, the situation is horrid. And in the midst of the muck, a boy is born in 1819 who will grow to be the poop hero of London. Joseph Bazalgette is his name.

A chaotic spread of London buildings, people pouring waste pots out the window and people walking down the streets attempting to avoid the slop while horses and pigs run around. A man in a black suit holds an umbrella over a lady in a red dress and hat who is holding a baby in a white wrapping. They are the center of the page.

As he grows up, he struggles along with everyone else through the cities’ epidemics with cholera – a much misunderstood disease scientifically and medically. Through the 1840s, Parliament attempts a plan to clean up the air, which everyone believes is the cause of cholera. This plan only makes things worse by rerouting all the waste directly into the Thames and all of London’s drinking water. More and more people continue to die with cholera. Thankfully for London, Joseph continues to survive and is a brilliant engineer taking a hard look at how to make London better. He begins to map the city’s sewers.

The spread is split in half. The top half is above ground. On the left page, a man sits inside an outhouse, pants down, looking at a paper that has cholera as the headline. The door is open. On the right top half, Joseph stands in a small hall, peering at a cracked pipe and making notes in his notebook. Underground are pipes and a big hole where the outhouse is pouring into.

Through many years of planning and politics and cholera getting worse and worse, Joseph continues to fight for better sewage treatment. It’s not until 1858 – the year of the “Great Stink” when a heat wave increases the stench of the Thames that Joseph is able to get approval from Parliament to take action.

The top 3/4 of the spread is a large table with a gigantic map spread in front of a group of white men. Joseph is wearing a blue coat and leaning over them all to point to the plans on the map. A tall man stands at the opposite end angrily pointing his cane to a section of the map. The bottom 1/4 of the spread shows the Thames with some skyline in the background, a bridge, a few boats, and a man swimming towards a murky area of water. A woman dips her toe into the water on the shore.

Lots of digging, creating tunnels and embankments, impressive engineering and mechanics, and finally Joseph’s achievements can be seen as improvement. Another bad bout of cholera in 1866 that only affects an area of London not yet connected to the new sewers proves to everyone that contaminated water is the culprit. Lives are being saved by Joseph’s sewer system!

The top 1/3 of the spread show Joseph in a boat measuring the from the shore to the water. The bottom 2/3 shows that same arced view with a large sidewalk now full of people and the Thames flowing up to a wall instead. Joseph looks proudly from a boat.

This truly is such a fascinating story. I knew nothing about Joseph Bazalgette or London’s sewers until this book. Such a disgusting time in history, but as the extensive author’s note in the back details, poop pollution is not a thing of the past. There is still much work to do, especially with climate change and lots of areas of the world still functioning without proper sanitation. Even in well-developed areas, climate issues can cause problems! I knew none of this. The note in the back is great, especially the ideas for how to help and take action no matter your age or location!

The left page shows black and white with a bunch of skeletons dressed in historically accurate clothing. A man greets the right side of the page with his hat lifted. The right side of the page shows a group of people staring shocked at the other people.

I’m so impressed with this book. Both the writing and the illustrations are clever and engaging. Paeff’s words are so funny at times and she does an excellent job explaining complicated things like engineering and politics in fun and memorable ways. I love all the synonyms she throws in as well. Such great vocabulary additions, like malodorous!

Three children work hard to dig a small garden at the base of a rainspout coming off a house. A brown-skinned boy plants some yellow flowers, a tan girl with a black ponytail uses a shovel in the dirt, and a blonde girl with white skin carries a large pot of blue flowers.

And the illustrations are just so great! They are cartoonish and comedic, but detailed and historical. They are fun to study and try to understand the structure and flow. Carpenter must have done incredible research to fully capture the situation, time period and engineering solutions. So well done.

Grab this book for fun or learning. It won’t disappoint. I may even put a copy of this in a bathroom for some great topical reading!

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