Great Balance of Potty Humor and Serious Science in “Who Gives a Poop?”

by | Nov 3, 2023

Anyone who has been paying attention to kidlit for the last decade or more will tell you, non-fiction is no longer the dry reciting of facts (which of course you can now get online), but instead has evolved into some of the most engaging, creative writing there is.

“Who Gives a Poop?” by Heather Montgomery (Bloomsbury) is a great example.

It’s hard to write seriously and yet, engagingly about poop, but Montgomery is a master. Describing the coyote scat that sparked her quest, Montgomery writes:

“Those weren’t the smooth, solid sausages my pup, Piper, excretes. There was something there. Some clue that had me scrambling back up, leaning in … The chunks, glossy enough to reflect the October sky, sported chestnut-brown seeds. I hefted a hunk in my hand. [NOTE: She wore latex gloves] The turd was as wide as a quarter, and wiggly white hairs sprang out from the brown gunk. This was no pet poo …  I knew, just knew, there had to be someone out there who could really read a clue from poo.”

One of the things that makes this book so readable is that Montgomery is a hands-on scientist and naturalist and she takes us with her into the field, to really SEE what happens when one “does” science. And these aren’t even exotic places, like the Amazon. We follow Montgomery into the Alabama forests, and then back to her own dining room table, complete with instruments (microscope, loupe, forceps, gloves, masks, goggles, probes, scalpel) and shows us how she “unpacks poop.” We also travel with her to Chicago, New York and many other places within the US. Again, a quick note, Montgomery frequently and emphatically does NOT suggest the reader try to copy her experiments. She is a trained naturalist.

This is a wide-ranging book in other senses, too, not just geographically. We meet scientists who study animal waste with an impressively varied range of research interests, from trying to save endangered forest elephants and the elusive pangolins, to using animal poop as a renewable fuel source, to understanding the significance to the environment of the “whale pump,” as well as those working to understand the complexity and nuances of the human digestive system and the roles that microbes play in our health, including everything from allergies to autism.

I didn’t count them, but I bet Montgomery uses the phrase, “we don’t know” at least a dozen times in this book. She does this to show young readers how /what science is, how we ask questions, gather data, facts, observations in an effort to answer those questions, but that it is a continual process of refinement. Ultimately, there are still a ton of things we just don’t know yet. She models scientific method over and over again.

She makes it clear that the interpretation of those facts changes, when we bring more observation and data to the question. “In science, rarely do you get a yes or a no,” a fellow scientist observes. “This is the evolution of understanding. This is scientific knowledge in the making. What we do with that new knowledge is a choice each of us gets to make,” she adds.

Montgomery also knits an astonishing array of seemingly unconnected things together into an engaging narrative. One of the most outstanding is how, at the very beginning of the book, she tells us this awful story of how 10 million pounds of human poop from New York City got stuck in the small town of Parrish, Ala. It seems like just one more story of how much of a mess humans make and also how obnoxious it was that New York City would dump all its human waste on the small, rural community of Parrish. But in one of the final chapters, we visit the landfill that that human waste (officially, Class A biosolids) was headed to. And we see the story from a completely different angle. Landfills NEED these biosolids. Thanks to the biosolids, the completed landfill cell is host to waist-high greenery, including grasses and vegetables, as well as treefrogs, butterflies and bees. The author spots a wild turkey. This is in stark contrast to a reclaimed mine just on the other side of a rise. It’s been 30 years since the mine was filled in and replanted, but the trees are knee high. Without biosolids, nothing can grow in this area.

This story served to underscore her point, that the facts remain the same but our interpretation of them changes as we learn more. So I encourage everyone, adults and young readers alike, to give this book a try. In Montgomery’s capable hands, turds are terrific!

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