Author Interviews
1:22 am
Mon May 19, 2014

If You Want To Teach Kids History, Try Grossing Them Out First

Originally published on Tue May 20, 2014 5:46 am

How would a man in a suit of armor go to the bathroom? That inquiry into medieval sanitation is just one of many unlikely topics that have come up around Sarah Albee's dinner table. Albee, a children's book author, has been trying to get middle schoolers interested in history. Her strategy is to look at it through the lens of something that gets kids' attention, namely: things that are gross. Her first history book was called Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up.

(For those of you still wondering about how men in armor relieved themselves: There were many different styles of armor over the centuries, and some had conveniently located trap doors, Albee explains. But here's the catch: "If you're up on your horse and you're in the middle of a battle and people are trying to cut your head off, you're not going to get down off your horse and go behind a tree," she says. "You're just going to go, and it would be the job of an arming squire ... to clean the armor after the battle.")

Albee's latest book is Bugged: How Insects Changed History. "I think that the middle school brain likes skeevy stuff," she says. "Insects have killed more soldiers in wars than have swords and guns. I think that's kind of a cool fact that a lot of grownups don't know, and certainly a lot of kids don't realize. They really did determine the outcomes of many, many wars. Half a million of Napoleon's soldiers died of typhus and related bug-borne diseases."

She joins NPR's David Greene to talk about the role insects have played in our lives over the ages — from spreading disease, to determining the course of conflicts, to being tasty snacks.


Interview Highlights

On eating bugs

Entomophagy ... which means eating insects on purpose .... has a long and esteemed history. The ancient Greeks and Romans — bugs were a big part of their diet. I think the Romans preferred them roasted and crunchy, and the Greeks preferred them soft and mushy. It's a really good source of protein, and in many parts of the world they're a big part of people's diets.

On her argument that bugs played a major role in the Louisiana Purchase

When Napoleon was trying to put down this insurrection in Haiti in the early 1800s, he sent all these soldiers ... and lo and behold, 40,000 of them just up and died, mostly from yellow fever and also malaria. And at that point they didn't know what caused the disease; he just knew that this was a really buggy place, and so he really lost interest in the Southern portion of what would become the United States.

So he sold it to the Americans for, I think, 4 cents an acre — the country was suddenly a third bigger, so it allowed westward expansion and Lewis and Clark, and the rest is history.

On Lewis and Clark battling the bugs

There are hilariously awful accounts that Lewis and Clark, as they were exploring their new western territory, they did bring lots of grease with them to slather their bodies to protect them from insects. But they had to eat their lunch and dinner in the smoke of the campfire just so they wouldn't eat too many mosquitoes.

On why she writes for kids — and 12-year-olds in particular

I love writing for kids. A lot of us children's book authors get asked all the time: When are you going to write a book for grown-ups? And I think every children's book writer has an inner child ... and my inner child is 12 years old. ... I think like a 12-year-old: I think toilet jokes are funny; I think bugs and skeevy stuff is really cool. I just love this age so much, and I love to write for them.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Kids can be tough to impress. Sarah Albee knows this well. She's a children's author. And when she dropped by a Public Radio member station recently, she brought along three of her young readers, age 11, 12 and 13. They were all visiting a studio for the first time.

SARAH ALBEE: I never imagined it to look like this. I kind of imagined like a big...

MAYA KUMAR: This bigger.

SOFIA MEDIROS: Yeah.

ROBERT CLIFFORD: Yeah, you kind of imagine it to be a bit more splendor.

ALBEE: Yeah, and like a lot more spread out. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CLIFFORD: You just expect it to look more like the set for Jimmy Fallon or something.

KUMAR: Exactly.

GREENE: That's Maya Kumar, Sofia Mediros and Robert Clifford. They're a tough crowd, including for Sarah Albee who's been trying to get these and other middle schoolers interested in history. Her strategy: To look at the past through the lens of something that gets kids' attention - gross stuff. Her first history book was called "Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up."

ALBEE: I think that the middle school brain likes skeevy stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yep, we do.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Sarah Albee has been fascinated by gross stuff, as well, for a while. Her latest book begins with an apology to her family.

ALBEE: The apology in the dedication to my kids, I think they just have gotten used to having a mom who really likes weird, off-beat topics. And they would get this stricken look on their face when I started talking about it at the dinner table.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: I got to hear one of the facts that you just suddenly announce during supper.

ALBEE: Well, let's go with sanitation. I would ask how would a man in a suit of armor go to the bathroom.

(LAUGHTER)

ALBEE: And do you want to know the answer, David?

GREENE: I would love to know the answer, yeah.

ALBEE: Well, suits of armor of course they changed styles from century to century. And many of them did come with trap doors and buckles and things. But if you're up on your horse and you're in the middle of a battle and people are trying to cut your head off, you're not going to get down off your horse and go behind a tree...

GREENE: Yeah, you're not going to operate that trap door and...

ALBEE: No, you're just going to go. And it would be the job of an arming squire, probably someone about Rob's age, to clean the armor after the battle.

GREENE: Rob, how are you feeling about that?

CLIFFORD: Glad I live now.

GREENE: The new book that Sarah Albee has out is about a different topic. It is called "Bugged: How Insects Changed History."

ALBEE: Insects have killed more soldiers in wars than have swords and guns. And I think that's kind of a cool fact that I think a lot of grown-ups don't know, and certainly a lot of kids don't realize. That they really did determine the outcomes of many, many wars. Half a million of Napoleon's soldiers died of typhus and related bug-borne diseases.

GREENE: If you just page through this book it is full of fascinating bug facts about the role insects have played in science, in spreading disease, in determining the course of conflicts. We asked the kids to read some of their favorite parts from the book. Eleven-year-old Maya Kumar got us started.

KUMAR: (Reading) Many foods and drinks that come in bright shades of red, orange, pink and purple get their color from crushed bug carcasses.

GREENE: So, Maya, you're just - you're telling me that there are bug carcasses in a lot of what I'm eating.

KUMAR: Basically, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: And are you feeling good about that?

KUMAR: Not really.

(LAUGHTER)

ALBEE: Entomophagy is a section of the book as well, which means eating insects on purpose. And it has a long and esteemed history. The ancient Greeks and Romans, bugs were a big part of their diet. I think the Romans preferred them roasted and crunchy. And the Greeks preferred them soft and mushy. But it's a really good source of protein. And in many parts of the world, they're a big part of people's diets.

GREENE: Sophia or Rob, do you have a favorite passage from the book?

MEDIROS: I have a passage about, like, the yellow fever which is really kind of...

GREENE: OK. Go for it, Sofia.

MEDIROS: OK.

(Reading) Yellow fever starts with a blinding headache and painful sensitivity to light, followed by high fever. In serious cases, the virus attacks the liver which causes the skin to turn bright yellow. The kidneys stop functioning which poisons the body and causes the victim to bleed internally. Death often follows. The yellow skin tone of victims earned the disease nickname Yellow Jack.

GREENE: I'm thinking we all want to avoid getting yellow fever.

(LAUGHTER)

MEDIROS: Oh, yeah. a little bit. Yeah.

KUMAR: Yeah.

GREENE: And, Sarah, yellow fever is spread by bugs?

ALBEE: It is spread by a mosquito, not the same one that spreads malaria - that vectors malaria. But yes, it's called Aedes aegypti, which means Unpleasant Egyptian.

GREENE: One more piece of history I had to ask you about. You have argued that bugs are the reason that we got the Louisiana Purchase. And actually the reason that a big part of the United States is the United States.

ALBEE: That's right. When Napoleon was trying to put down this insurrection in Haiti in the early 1800s, he sent all these soldiers over to fight the Haitians - there was an uprising. And lo and behold, 40,000 of them just up and died, mostly from yellow fever and also malaria. And at that point they didn't know what caused the disease. He just knew that this was a really buggy place. And so, he really lost interest in the southern portion of what would become the United States.

So he sold it to the Americans for, I think, four cents an acre. The country was suddenly a third bigger so it allowed westward expansion and Lewis and Clark. And the rest is history.

GREENE: The rest is history. And you're saying if the place had not been so buggy this never would have happened.

ALBEE: Absolutely, and it still was buggy. I mean there're hilariously awful accounts that Lewis and Clark, as they were exploring this new Western territory, they did bring lots of grease with them to slather their bodies to protect them from insects. But they had to eat their lunch and dinner in the smoke of the campfire just so they wouldn't eat too many mosquitoes

GREENE: You know, you pack your book with a lot of history, a lot of facts. Why not do it as something other than a children's book? Why did you decide to do a book for kids?

ALBEE: Because I love writing for kids. And I - it's - people ask - lot of us children's book writers get asked all the time: When are you going to write a book for grown-ups? And I think every children's book writer has an inner child and a voice, that if they find that voice, that's where their best writing is. And my inner child is 12 years old. I just think I think like a 12-year-old. I think toilet jokes are funny. I think bugs and skeevy stuff is really cool. I just love this age so much and I love to write for them.

GREENE: Well, Sarah, Rob, Maya and Sofia, thank you all for coming and talking to us.

KUMAR: Thank you.

MEDIROS: Thank you a lot for having us.

CLIFFORD: Thank you for having us.

ALBEE: Thank you so much.

GREENE: Sarah Albee's new book is called "Bugged: How Insects Changed History." And I got to say these kids, they seem pretty comfortable behind the microphone.

CLIFFORD: Remote control.

MEDIROS: No beatboxing.

ALBEE: Yeah, no beatboxing.

KUMAR: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

KUMAR: Yeah, OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Hmm, beatboxing in the studio. I never thought of that as an option. Pretty exciting.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.