Sarah Albee is a history nut. From early on her father bounced her on his knee with tales of how Dr. John Snow proved that the 1854 cholera epidemic in London was caused by contaminated water from the public pump on Broad Street. “When I go to a school visit and ask third and fourth graders, ‘How many of you guys like history?’ almost everyone raises their hand,” she says. “By the time they land in my husband’s [history] classroom freshman year of high school they hate history.”
But Albee hopes to change their minds by showing them how it is relevant to their lives and piquing their curiosity. “My mission is to tantalize kids with fun facts from history that maybe will get them to learn more.”
Which is exactly how Albee’s father hooked her, and she is grateful that her parents endowed her and her siblings with confidence and curiosity. “We were not afraid to try new stuff,” she says. Albee was one of those kids who wanted to be fourteen different things when she grew up. “In a way, I feel like I have achieved that. As a nonfiction history writer if I want to learn about X, Y or Z, I can and write a book about it. It’s almost like I get to do whatever I want for a living.”
While studying for her undergraduate degree at Harvard she had the vague idea that she would someday enter the world of publishing, but not necessarily as a writer. She played basketball in college and after graduation played for a semi-pro team in Cairo, Egypt. With the help of a stellar recommendation from a poetry professor who encouraged her writing, Albee landed a journalist job at the American University in Cairo Press Office. “I still owe her a thank you note thirty years later,” Albee says.
Upon her return to the U.S. she became an editor at Sesame Street (Children’s Television Workshop back then). She first saw the program on television as an adult. “I was too old to have grown up on Sesame Street, but I knew I wanted to be part of this show,” she says. “It incorporated all the things I love best: humor, wonderful music, characters with real complexity and it’s for kids.”
Her position created the perfect segue to writing children’s books. “As an editor [for Sesame Street] I would write books on staff.” The popular Elmo Loves You is a Sarah Albee book. “Once you have books in print it’s easier to get published,” she says. “When I left Sesame Street and moved to Connecticut with my husband, I had plenty of work.” Work she rarely turned away because by that time she had three children. Albee wroteDora’s Backpack, the launch title for the Dora the Explorer series and a New York Timesbestseller. “It paid for our minivan,” Albee quips. “Who knew it would be a big hit.”
After accumulating a number of published credits Albee felt confident enough to return to history. “Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up started as a labor of love without any thought about if it was publishable,” she says. Her research led her beyond public sanitation to architecture, clothing and hygiene habits of different eras throughout history. “Both Bugged and Why’d They Wear That? arose out of my research on the Poop book and sanitation because they are of a piece. ” For instance, one chapter in the Poop book is devoted to filth diseases that result from bad sanitation, such as cholera. But many of these diseases were insect vectored (yellow fever, malaria, typhoid, typhus and bubonic plague), so the research for Poop overlapped with Bugged: How Insects Changed History.
Additionally, while researching Poop Albee discovered that filth ran in the streets before the invention of sewers and that prompted questions about fashion. “When people were dumping chamber pots out the window, how did people walk from place to place in long hemlines and delicate shoes?” she wondered. “The answer is they would slip their feet in these things called pattens which lifted you up above the muck.” Albee uncovered so many overlaps between public sanitation, fashion and insects that she kept separate lists for independent book ideas that trace each topic through history. “For me it was important to [organize my books] chronologically, because I think kids don’t get enough of chronology. They don’t know that during the Roman Empire the Han Dynasty was at the exact same time.”
Albee works from her Connecticut home. “I tend to work too much and too long,” she says. “Part of that is being married to a teacher whose work is never done either. We’ve both had to teach ourselves to close the computer and do something fun. But we love what we do.” In fact, Albee’s idea of “geek heaven” is spending the day in the New York Public Library. “I forget to have a sip of water let alone eat lunch. You get into that zone and it’s so amazing!”
During the school year, Albee’s husband delivers coffee to her in bed at 5:00 each morning and she writes for an hour. Then she gets her kids off to school and walks the dog before settling in at her computer where emails, photo research, fact checking and manuscript revisions await.
Albee’s passion for history and her irreverent sense of humor shine through in her books. Side bars throughout Bugged are called “Insect Asides.” In Why’d They Wear That? the chapter on the broad shoulder styles popular during King Henry VIII’s reign is called “Padded Bros.” A Sarah Albee history book digs deep to show the grossest, weirdest, most embarrassing and most outlandish facets of history.