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All the Dirt: A History of Getting Clean

by Capucine Mazille (ill.); Katherine Ashenburg

For her debut children’s title, Toronto author and journalist Katherine Ashenburg returns to the subject of cleanliness, which she first explored in her 2007 adult non-fiction title, The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. All the Dirt is, ultimately, a kid-friendly version of The Dirt on Clean, and covers the same territory. But as middle-graders are unlikely to have read the more detailed adult title, this will all be new to them.

All the Dirt Katherine AshenburgAshenburg starts off her social history of cleanliness by debunking eight myths about personal hygiene, which helps set up what the reader is in for. Did you know, for instance, that movement toward modern standards of cleanliness was not linear? We can thank the Black Death for promulgating a fear of water that interrupted Europe’s love affair with baths for centuries: doctors thought people contracted the plague via pores opened by hot water.

The chapters are organized chronologically, each opening with a fictionalized story, featuring kids connected to the theme and era being discussed (such as a young Turkish girl visiting a hamam – bathhouse – with her mother in 1500, or a pair of sisters in 1799 convincing their grandmother to take her first shower). These tales help readers connect with the topic by making a young person a relatable focus while also offering social and historical context.

Ashenburg’s experience as an editor and writer shows strongly here. Her prose is tight and fun, and she treats readers to accessible yet uncompromisingly smart language. The result is an exploration of the connections between culture, class, religion, power, geography, science, and technology as seen through their relation to cleanliness – all rendered in an engaging, age-appropriate way.

Sidebars are packed with interesting, sometimes cheeky tidbits that preteens might get a kick out of. In the 16th century, for instance, boys at St. Paul’s school in London used the Thames River as a place to poop and would wipe with hay or straw that they referred to as “arsewisp.” What poop-loving kid wouldn’t be all over that? Readers might also find it hilarious that the Spartans used to bathe their newborns in wine. These breaks in the main text allow readers to jump in and out should they not be up for a whole chapter at once. French illustrator Capucine Mazille’s charming and funny spot illustrations help boost the entertainment factor, and are likely to help hold readers’ attention, as well.

By demonstrating that something as seemingly unassailable as the definition of “clean” has shifted back and forth throughout history and geography, the book encourages kids to look critically at commonly accepted ideas. If changing your linen shirt several times a day was considered the scientifically accepted height of cleanliness in the 17th century — so much so that fashion evolved to highlight linen undergarments — what should we be questioning in terms of what’s considered hygienic?