Behind the Scenes: “Connecting the Past to the Present with Back Matter” by Colleen Paeff

When I saw the title of this book, I had to know more! A story about stinks? Right up my alley! Or should I say “Smelly” Kelly’s subway tunnel! 😁 Back matter is a chance for authors to present all sorts of ideas. Here, Colleen Paeff shares how she used back matter to connect the history in the story to today’s world and make The Great Stink, which releases Aug. 31, even more meaningful. Thanks, Colleen! 

Colleen is also offering a giveaway! Please leave a comment after the post for a chance to win a copy of THE GREAT STINK: HOW JOSEPH BAZALGETTE SOLVED LONDON’S POOP POLLUTION PROBLEM. 

colleen_paeff-PK1“Connecting the Past to the Present with Back Matter” by Colleen Paeff

I don’t know about you, but when it comes time to write the back matter for a book about sewers, my mind goes to poop. After all, they’re doing amazing things with human waste these days. Did you know that many wastewater treatment plants are powered by methane created by decomposing poo? Incredible, right?! Have you heard about the UK’s first poop-powered bus? It can travel up to 186 miles on a full tank of, uh, gas. And according to Connected: The Hidden Science of Everything, on Netflix, poop could even save lives.

So, that’s where I was headed with my back matter for THE GREAT STINK: HOW JOSEPH BAZALGETTE SOLVED LONDON’S POOP POLLUTION PROBLEM (illustrated by Nancy Carpenter)––and I was thrilled about it. But my agent, Clelia Gore of Martin Literary Management, had other ideas. She wanted me to write about water pollution. It made sense. My book is about how, in 1858, the abundance of raw sewage polluting the River Thames created a stench so horrendous they gave it a name. Many Londoners got their drinking water from the Thames, and this mix of sewage and drinking water caused a cholera epidemic. Tens of thousands of people died before the government finally agreed to Joseph Bazalgette’s plan to build proper sewers. So, you can see where Clelia was coming from. Still, I was disappointed. But my agent is smart. She has keen sense of what sells, so I didn’t hesitate to change course.


Clelia’s suggestion led me to look into the huge number of people who continue to die of cholera today (many of them children); I also discovered that even in North America raw sewage still pollutes our waterways; and I learned what various groups around the world are doing to stop water pollution, end cholera, and create safe ways to dispose of human waste.

This discussion of “Poop Pollution Today” takes a story that happened over 160 years ago and makes it relevant to today’s kids. It adds another way for teachers to use the book in the classroom. And it provides young readers with concrete steps they can take to stop water pollution in their own communities.


So, was my agent right? You bet. Do I think the back matter helped sell my manuscript? Absolutely! Will I ever write about all the amazing things they’re doing with human waste these days? Of course! I’m planning a downloadable information sheet for my website!

GreatStink_HighResCoverI’m also keeping a running list of children’s books that connect the past to the present through back matter on my blog. Please feel free to recommend additional titles (either here or there) that use the same clever trickery to make history more relevant to our young readers.

Don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of THE GREAT STINK! (US addresses only, please)


Fueled by English breakfast tea, a burning curiosity, and a love of research, Colleen Paeff writes picture books from a book-lined office in an old pink house with a view of the Hollywood sign. Her forthcoming book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (illustrated by Nancy Carpenter) will be available August 31, 2021 from Margaret K. McElderry Books, followed by Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi, from Chronicle Books in 2023. Find her online at and on Twitter and Instagram @ColleenPaeff.

To order a signed copy of Colleen’s book, follow this link to Once Upon a Time (the nation’s oldest children’s bookstore!).

66 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Connecting the Past to the Present with Back Matter” by Colleen Paeff

  1. I cannot wait to read your book Colleen. I’m fascinated by the necessity of invention and how we’ve made improvements in human life because of them. My kids are obsessed with poop and I know our curious minds will enjoy reading this together.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was surprised to find out how truly fascinating it is. Especially wastewater treatment!! That’s not covered in the book, but watch a few YouTube videos on how the process works and you will be amazed!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I can’t wait to read this book as well! I will need a couple of copies for the grand kids!!! David loves to read (yay!!) and Shaina is due this April 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As a science teacher, I’ve been intrigued by your book since I saw the cover reveal on Twitter! As an author, I’m intrigued by this idea of connecting past to present in back matter — and hopefully going to find a way to do that in one of my manuscripts soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad the cover caught your eye, Jessica! I can’t tell you how excited I was the first time I saw it. I couldn’t decide if I liked the floating letters or the falling bird best. Haha! The whole thing is pretty spectacular.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Congratulations! The title and illustrations will certainly interest many students. We all know it’s a problem, but I love the solution that was designed in the UK to use poop to gas up the buses! Fascinating read! Perfect timing for Earth Day! The backmatter is necessary for a book like yours — especially if their are suggested projects or ways for kids to get involved. Poopendous!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Patricia! I thought that poop-powered bus was fascinating too! And I’ve just watched a documentary about how they are using the minerals in urine to charge batteries!! Amazing!


  5. Kids love anything concerning poop! Your book sounds fascinating, Colleen. I loved learning about linking the history to the present through the back matter. Congratulations on your new book!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This book is a slam dunk in any kids library. I will be getting several for some poop-curious nieces and nephews of mine. (But I’ll read it first- fascinating topic!!)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. So odd that this post is all about back matter as, for the first time in my writing life, I’m working on two picture book manuscripts that will include back matter. I have zero clue what to include and how, so I”l be studying your blog and the back matter for “The Great Stink…” closely. Er, but maybe not too closely!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. My elementary students love poop books! I have many for our library. Sometimes students come to tell me someone put a poop book in the library and are often surprised and amused when I tell them I ordered the poop books! Why do I order them they ask, because kids love them and read them and that is my main goal!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Just to be completely honest here I may or may not have thought to myself upon first hearing about your upcoming book, “Now who would really want to buy a book about poop to read to their children?” But now I am anxiously awaiting the release date. Not only have you made me see the importance of this topic from a historical perspective but you have made it relevant to the world we live in today. Because you are brilliant and I can’t wait to see where your writing career takes you. Cheers, Colleen, to this book bringing well deserved recognition!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Ahhhh! August 31st. Can’t wait to receive yr book, Colleen. Ordering it right now. You’ll have to add a little more to my signed copy after you return home! Illustrations are fantastic & kids will so love the grossness of the Thames and your words!!!
    Yay! Whoopee! Hurray!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Colleen, what a beautiful book! I am interested in hearing more of your thoughts about back matter in picture books. I’m working on my grad lecture on this very topic. Can I email some questions to you?

    Liked by 2 people

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