Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sarah Albee's Five Favorite History Books

Every now and then, we Cottagers get giddy over one of our guests. That's not to say we don't enjoy each and every visitor we are fortunate to host at our humble abode… but, you know how it is, when someone comes to dinner you just KNOW is going to have the BEST stories? That's Sarah Albee. Sarah is the author of more than 100 books for young readers, many of them related to beguiling historical subjects such as Bugs, or Poop, or her latest… Why'd They Wear That? a funny and informative romp through centuries of fashion dos and don'ts. From the skeevy to the sublime, Sarah is a master at getting kids excited about fascinating tidbits of history—so we asked her for a list of her five favorite books to get budding history buffs reading.

Thanks, Cottagers, for inviting me to talk about some of my favorite history books. It was really hard to narrow it down to these, but I did manage to sneak in a sixth because one of my choices is a follow-up, heh heh. I love medical history, social history, and stories that help kids see the human side of history. Extra points go to history writers with a sense of humor, which helps draw kids into the story.

Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat, by Gail Jarrow  (Calkins Creek, 2014).

It’s a dramatically-designed book with plenty of graphic pictures of the dreadful disease called pellagra, which ravaged the country in the first part of the twentieth century but which has practically been forgotten in modern times. Jarrow meticulously chronicles the progress made by medical “detectives” who uncovered its cause and who ultimately saved thousands of lives. If you have—or know of—a kid who says she hates to eat her vegetables, shove this book into her hands. It’ll do the trick. I’m a big fan of histories of public health heroes, and books about epidemiology, and Gail Jarrow has done a remarkable job portraying the disease and its ultimate cure. Plus the pictures are truly gruesome. What’s not to love?
I Feel Better With a Frog in My Throat, written and illustrated by Carlyn Beccia (Houghton Mifflin, 2010)

An entertaining romp through medical history and the cures for various ailments that medical practitioners have tried on their patients. Versions of some of these treatments are still in practice today (see caterpillar fungus, frog slime, and leeches). Beccia is a hilarious writer (“Some things get better with age. Urine is not one of them.”), a thorough researcher, and also, she illustrates her own books. I know. It’s enough to make a history writer want to Frisbee her own laptop across the room at the opposite wall.

How They Choked: Failures, Flops, and Flaws of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg, illustrated by Kevin O’Malley (Walker, 2014)

See? By mentioning this follow-up to Bragg’s wonderful How they Croaked (2010) as one of my top five, I am slyly able to up my title count, because I love both of these books so much. In her intro, Georgia Bragg says, “Juicy failures don’t often make it into biographies because sometimes historians lose sight of the fact that their subjects were human beings.” And the book covers the lives of some of my favorite historical figures, including Ferdinand Magellan, Isaac Newton, and Queen Isabella. The writing is hilarious and lively and compelling.

The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors by Chris Barton. Illustrated by Tony Persiani (Charlesbridge, 2009).
This book is ingenious for all sorts of reasons: the writing, which captures the lives of two brothers and distills down some pretty complicated science into an entertaining read; the design, which perfectly complements the historical era; and most notably, the art, which is flat brilliant. As the story of the brothers’ discoveries unfolds, the pictures progress from black and white, to including spots of color, to full-on Day-Glo. And the style is so evocative of the era, which is one of my favorite time periods for animation (and for fashion).
(Bonus points if you want to see historical examples of this style of animation. Click on this link to watch the memorable opening of the 1960s TV show My Three Sons And the 1961 Disney version of 101 Dalmations has a jazzy opening credit sequence—complete with Day-Glo-like colors-- that I could watch over and over: You’ll appreciate how the design of Day-Glo Brothers is so spot-on.)

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and The Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (Schwartz and Wade, 2014).

I’ve been obsessed with the Romanovs ever since I did a report on Rasputin in sixth grade. Also, my sister is fluent in Russian—she has lived in Saint Petersburg for twenty years with her Russian husband and my Russian niece, and I’m super close to my sister, so I feel like I’m kind of part-Russian. The story of the fall of Imperial Russia and the doomed, out-of-touch Tsar and his family is incredibly compelling, dramatic, and tragic, and Candace Fleming is a master storyteller—the perfect writer for this complex and interwoven tale. She moves back and forth between the royal family and the starving Russian peasantry and the dreadfully underequipped soldiers fighting in World War I, so the reader has a vivid picture of how and why the Bolsheviks were able to rise to power, and can appreciate how much suffering the average Russians had to endure.

Sarah Albee is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 100 books for kids, ranging from preschool through middle grade. Her nonfiction middle grade titles include Why'd They Wear That? (National Geographic, 2015), Bugged: How Insects Changed History (2014), and Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up (2010)–and several more are on the way. She loves to visit schools to talk to kids about history and writing. She lives in Connecticut with her family and blogs about offbeat history at
Why'd They Wear That? (National Geographic, 2015)
By Sarah Albee
Foreword by Tim Gunn
ISBN: 978-1426319198
"Opening with a foreword by style guru Tim Gunn, this lavishly illustrated book presents history as a long and winding runway of fashion. In its brightly adorned pages, readers can gaze and gawk at the strange outfits humans have dreamed up since “casting off their smelly bear-skins” 10,000 years ago." - The Washington Post

"...this is truly an ageless piece of work that does everything a book should do. This book educates, elucidates, and entertains and should be deemed required reading for anyone who is interested in fashion on any level." - New York Journal of Books

"What a good idea for a book. And what a clever way to do it. As the subtitle says, this hefty, extensively illustrated book uses fashion to discuss the ways and whys people dress and how it reflects what’s happening in their civilization." - Booklist

"Now see, the reason I like National Geographic Kids is that they’re reliable. Take Why’d They Wear That?, for example. You know what you’re getting here, even if you don’t know the details. Mind you, the details are where all the good stuff is." - School Library Journal

"Full of period images that show off every bustle, frill, and rivet, this wide-ranging guide to clothing throughout time will fascinate history and fashion buffs alike." - Publishers Weekly

By Sarah Albee
Illustrated by Robert Leighton
Bloomsbury USA Childrens (April 15, 2014)
ISBN: 978-0802734228

"The shock value alone makes this worth the cover price, but once kids are pulled in, they will learn more than they bargained for about the impact of insects on human history. Insects have determined the outcomes of wars and the paths of human migrations; they have brought plagues, provided strong fabrics, and sweetened our tea. Chapters are divided topically, beginning with the basics of insect life cycles, moving on to human hygiene and beneficial insects, and then covering 'bad news bugs,' before tackling history from the 'earliest epidemics' to current concerns in the relationship between humans and insects. This is history for those with a strong constitution, who aren't bothered by phrases such as 'cockroach brain tissue,' 'crawling with maggots,' and 'bursting buboes' or by the idea of receiving 9,000 insect bites in a minute. With a green-and-purple design, reminiscent of a beetle, and black-and-white photos and cartoon illustrations, this is an attractive package full of hand-washing inducing facts. Overall, this title is astonishing, disgusting, revolting, and ultimately fascinating, making it perfect for emerging entomologists, budding historians, reluctant readers, and gross-out junkies alike."—SLJ


  1. Sarah picked a few of my favorites too, but I'm with the Cottagers when they squeal about Sarah's own writing. I love to study the structure of her books. She has a knack for presenting her material in the perfect format. Thanks!

    1. Yes, she does! We are big fans. Thanks for your comment, Joanne!

  2. Sarah, thanks for sharing! The Day-Glo Brothers sounds perfect for my science guy.

    1. Hope your science guy enjoys it, Manju. Thanks for reading and commenting! Did you see Chris Barton did a Five Favorites PB Biographies for us last week? Great stuff there, too!

  3. Creepy, gross, and funny . . . all bases covered here. My boys will love these books. Thanks for the list, Sarah!