By Carol Hinz, Associate Publisher of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books
Eating poop is gross! So why do some animals do it? For lots of good reasons!
Way back when I started working as a children’s book editor, I have to confess that I didn’t exactly aspire to edit a book about animals that eat poop. And author Sara Levine never expected to write such a book! So how did we end up doing exactly that? Get the scoop on this delightfully disgusting book in my interview with Sara.
Carol Hinz (CH): This book came about in kind of an unusual way. Early in the pandemic, my two kids were home doing distance learning, and they started watching a pair of robins that built a nest under the eaves of our house. Shortly after the babies hatched, I commented to you that we’d seen the parents picking up little white “sacs” out of the nest and sometimes eating them. Can you talk about how that observation led to you writing this book?
Sara Levine (SL): Yes! Being curious about all things animal-related and not knowing what was going on, I looked it up.
I learned that white sacs were bags of mucus enclosing the robin babies’ poop and pee, and handy for transporting this out of the nest. Sometimes the robin parents dispose of the sacs, and other times, especially when the chicks are very young, the parents eat the sacs to get the valuable undigested nutrients. I was surprised I did not know about this already. I had raised a number of songbird chicks with my Connecticut Audubon Society volunteer mom when I was a kid, but I had never seen this behavior. The birds we cared for would keep things tidy by standing up on spindly legs and eliminating over the edge of the makeshift bowl-nests we raised them in. The fact that this sac-encasement behavior exists in robins and some other species of songbirds fascinated me. After relaying the information to you, I did some more reading. I was thinking it would be fun to pass on what I learned about other animals that eat their own poop to your kids, just to amuse them. It was during lockdown time, when we were all looking for ways to connect and entertain one another. While researching, it occurred to me that there were enough examples that there could actually be a book. And I think I made a joke to that effect.
CH: What made the idea for this book become more than a joke?
SL: I realized that while the fact of the behavior is funny, the why of it was actually very intriguing, and there was a lot of biology embedded in there. Why have certain animals evolved to eat poop? The answers are varied and tell interesting stories about the digestive tract and comparative anatomy and evolution. And these are important topics to understand and to teach to children.
CH: When doing research for this book, were you just completely disgusted throughout, or at a certain point did fascination override any feelings of being grossed out?
SL: It’s probably important to know that I was raised in a medical family with parents who were a doctor and a nurse and who freely discussed a full range of anatomical topics at the dinner table. Nothing was too taboo. So, my gross-out tolerance level is probably much higher than average. This prepared me well for veterinary work later on, when such tasks as expressing dogs’ anal glands and doing full-arm length exams per rectum on cows were matter of course. So, when researching and writing this book, my fascination did mostly override my admittedly reduced feelings of disgust.
That said, my daughter didn’t grow up with such conversational inoculation. At age 19, here’s what she said the evening I told her I’d decided to try a draft of this book:
“Mama, I gave you some perfectly good ideas about what to write today. And you CHOSE to write about this? And now you want me to edit it for you? How is that fair?!”
CH: What was the strangest thing you learned while working on this book?
SL: A number of animals eat poop to bring microbes into their bodies to help break down difficult-to-digest material. Usually those animals do this only briefly when they are young to bring the tiny inhabitants inside the animals’ bodies where they grow and thrive and participate in a symbiotic relationship for life. But in termites, their resident microbes die each time they molt their exoskeletons, so termites need to eat poop each time they have a growth spurt.
CH: Florence Weiser’s illustrations are delightful! Do you have a favorite spread from the book’s interior?
SL: I agree! I am thrilled with Florence Weiser’s humorous and lively illustrations. I think my favorite is the spread on termites. She shows them lined up to visit outhouses that have hooks outside for the termites to hang up the molts that they’ve just shed. It’s clever and funny and informative!
Praise for Poop for Breakfast
“Levine knows how to grab young readers’ attention and explain science topics simply but effectively. And while Weiser’s illustrations are entertaining, they’re also enlightening . . . Irresistible science.” —Kirkus Reviews