November 26, 2018

Birth Stories for Books: WHAT DO THEY DO WITH ALL THAT POO? by Jane Kurtz

Welcome back to Birth Stories for Books: Posts About Paths to Publication from Published Authors and Illustrators. My current guest is Jane Kurtz author of WHAT DO THEY DO WITH ALL THAT POO? (illustrated by Allison Black and published by Beach Lane Books, June, 2018).

Given my own interest in potty-related topics, I was particularly pleased to be able to feature this book in this series of posts!

Jane shares with us where the idea for this book originated, and how it materialized into a book. Welcome, Jane!

Ideas Are Often the Easy Part
by Jane Kurtz

The question most authors probably get asked more than any other?

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Ideas are often the easy part, especially once you train your brain to pay attention to innovative flashes. I sometimes show young writers examples from my published books of times I’ve gotten ideas from memories, from things happening around me, and from things I’ve been reading. (As someone wisely said about writing a novel, something may initially trigger the initial idea for that particular novel, but a writer actually needs a good idea for every single scene.)

And sometimes, the idea for a book isn’t even yours.

That’s how it was for my new picture book, What Do They Do With All That Poo?

I was at an author retreat with buddies, and we were sitting around in the living room discussing (okay, complaining about) how picture books have changed. We started to make each other laugh with titles of books we would never write…and one of my friends said, “Zoo poo.”

“Hang on,” I said. “That’s actually a great idea for a book.”

My friend has written a nonfiction picture book about an urban farmer. She’s read us many drafts of a book celebrating tomatoes. She is as serious as I am about compost and the beauty of the soil under our feet. So, I knew she was as interested as I was in whether zoos were doing creative and responsible things with all that poo.

But she insisted the idea was mine if I wanted it.

Vermont College of Fine Arts Residency
I admit that I sat on the idea for several years. When I was teaching the Picture Book Intensive in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Children’s and YA Literature, I really discovered and delved into all the new nonfiction being published.

Inspired, I started to write nonfiction, and I actually sold another nonfiction picture book first.  When I was talking with that editor, I mentioned how I wanted to write about zoo poo but wasn’t sure what approach to take. She asked me if I wanted to brainstorm with her, and I said, “Sure.”

Interactive Exhibit at the Oregon Zoo
By then, I’d been turning a lot of different approaches over in my mind. I told her I wasn’t sure whether to focus on one zoo or many. I had visited the zoo right here in Portland with my grandkids, for example. Should I focus the book right here in my own backyard? 

Somehow during the conversation, the idea came up that for young readers, I should probably start with the animals themselves. As I was trying to think about what very young readers needed to know about poo, it occurred to me that I should set the stage with the concept of different types of poo that come from different animal diets.

It’s always mysterious exactly where the voice for my various books comes from. I can’t even say how these lines popped into my head. But this is what I sent to the editor as part of a very loose first draft:

Welcome to the zoo and the peaceful sound of chewing.

Everybody eats, all around the zoo.

Different mouths.  Different teeth. Welcome to the view.

Munch munch the herbivores eat fruit and leaves and trees.

Crunch crunch the carnivores devour meat with glee.

Oh, oh the omnivores nibble spiders and seeds.

And then…





Welcome to the zoo with the funny sounds of poo-ing.

I didn’t know if she would respond favorably at all to the rhyme. After all, a lot of editors say they don’t want to see any rhyming manuscripts (although I’ve published rhyming books previously and know that many editors mostly mean they don’t want to see flat, predictable, forced rhymes).

The irony of those clever lines is that they didn’t survive. But she liked what I was doing. She asked me to write more about the various animals, and I started with hippos, an animal I often saw growing up in Ethiopia that has pretty dramatic poo habits. 

Some of my favorite bits of this book were left on the cutting room floor. Like this:

Some zoos have cubs that were born in a litter.

Zookeepers sprinkle the cubs’ food with glitter.

The poo comes in blue, gold, and silvery hues,

which helps them keep track of whose poo is whose.

When I discovered that many bats have poo that sparkles because of the insects they devour, it was a little bit of a consolation prize. I love it that I learn so many things every time I write a book.

In my experience, publishing a picture book means being willing to play endlessly with words and rhythms and hold possibilities loosely until the result (in this case) is a book that a reader describes as “that rare combination: hilarious and good science.”

Hilarious and good science, indeed. Thank you, Jane, for sharing the back story of WHAT DO THEY DO WITH ALL THAT POO? All laughs aside, we sure did learn a heap from you! 

Jane Kurtz is an award-winning author of almost 40 fiction and nonfiction books for young readers—picture books, ready-to-reads, and middle grade novels. Lately, her books focus on “green” themes such as compost, earthworms, and saving pollinators. She lives in Portland, Oregon; teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in YA and Children’s Literature, and heads up a volunteer team that creates colorful, fun, local language books for families in Ethiopia (where she spent most of her childhood). You can find her on Twitter and at her website: .

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