Category Archives: Sarah Albee

I write books for kids, ranging from very young toddlers all the way up to 12- or 13-year-olds. I write for television-based characters like Dora, Elmo, and SpongeBob, but these days I spend most of my time writing fiction and nonfiction for kids 8 to 12.

Sarah Albee: Liquid Asset

From: Sarah Albee
October 19, 2012 at 05:30AM

Typewriter correction fluid, known commercially as Liquid Paper, was invented by a divorced mother in 1951 who was trying to earn extra income. In 1979 she sold the product for over $47 million dollars. Her son, Michael Nesmith, was a member of The Monkees.


Sarah Albee: N is for Nylghau

From: Sarah Albee
October 19, 2012 at 04:23AM

I’ve written a lot of alphabet books over the course of my career. (The book pictured above is one example of my alphabet oeuvre, which seemed timely.) Writing alphabet books is kind of an essential skill to acquire if you write for preschoolers, and especially so if you want to work, as I did, at Sesame Street. I was there for nine years.

One thing I learned from bitter experience: alphabet books are hard to write. Because you don’t want to get it wrong. You think, hah, I got this: D is for Dog. And the people down in Research shake their heads and tell you, no, the kid will say “Barkley.” How about D is for Daffodil, then? (Nope. The kid will say flower.) M is for Monster? (They massage their temples with barely-restrained patience and tell you no, the kid won’t say “M is for Monster.” The kid will say ”M is for Elmo.”) You think, hmmm. Here’s a foolproof one: C is for Coat. And Research says “Uh-uh. Jacket.” And you can’t say K is for knife for several obvious reasons, or C is for Chocolate for several other obvious reasons— or G is for Gnu or N is for Nylghau. (I’m becoming facetious, which also tends to happen when you’re writing an alphabet book and you arrive at the letter Q and realize you basically have queen or quilt as your pictureable objects. But you get my point I hope.)

And then there’s the Dreaded X. What do you picture on the X page? If you are writing a Sesame Street book, you put Cookie Monster on the page, standing behind an X-ray machine, showing his tummy with a lot of half-eaten cookies in it.

I turned to historical ABC books as a sort of snapshot of the kinds of pictureable objects that would have been familiar to kids in times past. You have to hope that the author/illustrators were trying their best to picture things familiar to kids of their era, but after you look at some of these, it does make you wonder. Have a look.

Here’s a picture alphabet from the UK national archives collection, 1885.

G is for Geranium. Hear that, Sesame Street Research? O is for Opera Glasses. And for X? X is for X-mas, silly.

We turn now to Dame Wonder’s Picture Alphabet, of anonymous authorship and unknown year of publication, but it’s certainly nineteenth century. I won’t take the time to show every letter–you can click on the link to see the whole thing–but a few entries are worth noting, like I is for Italian:J for Jane? Do you see that, Research?

Here’s U for Uncle (puhleeze). And how do they handle X in this one?X is for the number ten, or “No X” as the artist renders that numeral.

Here’s an entry from an 1850 Alphabet book.


Why, sure. M is for Monkey, drinking a glass of champagne, and N is for Nylghau.

How does this author handle the letter X? He totally wusses out.And finally, we have Little Pets Linen ABC, from the year 1886.

I’d love to show you the whole thing, but here’s G through L.

Note that G is for Gnu, Gun, and Groom. And please also note that the juggler is juggling KNIVES. My former colleagues down in Research have probably fainted dead away by this point, if they’re reading this.

And M through R.

Note that N is once again for Nylghau, and also (cringe) Negro.

And here is S through Z, which is a low quality scan but I had to show you how they dealt with X:

I know it’s hard for you to see it, but X is for Xerxes.

Here’s the cover of this book, by the way. From what I can tell, “Little Pets” was a series brand. And those kids on the cover, trying to tear apart the book? At least one is a boy. (For more about that, click here.)

Halloween ABC by Sarah Albee, illustrated by Julia Woolf, Random House, 2009

Sarah Albee: What’s Up?

From: Sarah Albee
October 18, 2012 at 04:43AM

After several months of bending backwards and focusing his eyes upward while painting the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo developed severe eyestrain. He could only read or look at drawings at arm’s length, above his head.

Sarah Albee: Lion Dogs

From: Sarah Albee
October 17, 2012 at 05:08AM

They really can be pretty silly-looking, especially the ones you see in the dog shows with their hair all fluffed out. But the Pekingese, originally from China, is one of the most ancient breeds of dog, and it has a pretty fascinating history.

There are several Chinese legends about how the dog came to be; according to one, a lion fell in love with a marmoset, and Buddha agreed to shrink it down. They’re also known as “lion dogs.” Another legend is that the lion fell in love with a butterfly, and Buddha created the Pekingese so they could meet in the middle.

Going back thousands of years, the breed was the exclusive playmate of Chinese emperors. Palace eunuchs took care of them, and the dogs had their own luxurious gilded kennels. They were called “sleeve dogs,” because Chinese royalty could carry them in the sleeves of their robes.

In 1860, during the Opium Wars, English and French soldiers were ransacking the Imperial Palace in Beijing. The accounts vary, but according to one source*, an English soldier found five small, flat-faced dogs whose owner, an elderly aunt of the Emperor, had committed suicide. Before the palace was burned, he took them away to safety.

One of these dogs was presented to Queen Victoria, who, (according to the same source) “without apparent irony, christened the dog Looty.” Yeah, Looty. You can’t make this stuff up.

From that point on, Pekingese became a fashionable breed among wealthy people in the U.S. and England.

Meanwhile, in China, the breed fell from favor, and during Mao’s rule, all dogs were condemned as a bourgeois luxury.


* Dennison, Matthew. “Not just for christmas: Matthew Dennison extols the virtues of a rare but distinguished breed.” Spectator 3 Jan. 2009: 38. Gale World History In Context. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.
Other info from: FAMOUS DOG-MOTHER.: The Story of “Looty,” Which Was Brought from China In 1861. New York Times (1857-1922); Feb 25, 1912; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York
Images: Top photo By Pleple2000 (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Bottom Photo: Pekingese, 1903, via Wikimedia

Sarah Albee: Lights Out

From: Sarah Albee
October 17, 2012 at 04:45AM

The word “curfew” comes from the French term couvre-feu, which means “cover the fire.” The town bell was rung at about 8 pm in medieval England as a signal for everyone to put out their fires and candles and go to bed.

Sarah Albee: Dressed to Kill

From: Sarah Albee
October 16, 2012 at 05:23AM

A favorite accessory of first century Celtic warriors was a belt from which hung the human heads of conquered enemies.

Sarah Albee: Ker-Pow

From: Sarah Albee
October 15, 2012 at 05:51AM

Alfred Nobel (1833  – 1896), the Swedish chemist who used his vast wealth to establish the Nobel Prizes, was also the inventor of dynamite.

Sarah Albee: Thou Cream-Faced Loon!

From: Sarah Albee
October 15, 2012 at 05:08AM

If you’re a beginning writer and you’re endeavoring to write funny dialogue for a character from “the olden days,” here’s a little insider’s tip: Shakespeare is an excellent resource. For instance, I recently pitched a series idea to my agent. It’s comic fiction for younger kids, and the first story is about pirates. I wanted my pirate dialogue to sound authentic, and also funny. So I went to my Shakespearean insults sources—of which there are many, like this one and this one—and found some great, salty pirate curses to use in my story. My pirate captain calls his crew “lily-livered clotpoles” and “swag-headed varlets.”

Those of us who write for middle grade and younger age groups have to be very careful about not using inappropriate language in our stories. The trick is to use dialogue that enlivens your story, but doesn’t get you in trouble.

A Facebook friend of mine posted this article that describes how Ancient Romans used to curse (politely) so they wouldn’t get into trouble.

Even back then, as now, people used replacement profanities—the equivalent of “darn” and “heck,” in polite company. The article cites Professor Kruschwitz, from the University of Reading’s Department of Classics, who did a study of ancient Roman exclamations and found some great dramatized expressions of contempt and dismay.

Says Kruschwitz, “The Romans employed a host of minced oaths to escape using foul language in public. Where in English one might wish to say ‘Judas Priest’, instead of blasphemous ‘Jesus Christ’, a Roman playwright had used the less offensive O Apella, o Zeuxis, the names of two famous Greek painters, for ‘by Apollo and Zeus’ . . . ‘They also used onomatopoetic terms such as butubatta or spattaro, perhaps close to something like ‘blah blah’ or ‘codswallop’, which conveyed someone’s contempt for another person. Dramatised expressions of contempt and dismay were also popular such as attatae or as we might say ‘shoot’ or ‘dang’.”

So next time your older brother does something that annoys you, you can call him a malus nequamque (that means big fat jerk–from this site). If you know Latin, that is. Or there’s always the ever-satisfying  “mewling clay-brained joithead.”


Shakespeare, via Wikimedia Commons
Roman sculpture of Crassus: By Diagram Lajard (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Albee: Thumbs Up

From: Sarah Albee
October 12, 2012 at 04:45AM

British sailors sewing heavy canvas sails wore “thumb bells” made of leather to protect their fingers from getting jabbed. During the seventeenth century, a metalworker created a thumb bell out of thin steel, which became wildly popular. The phrase became slurred into the word “thimble.”


Source: Don Wulffson, The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle, page 98

Sarah Albee: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

From: Sarah Albee
October 12, 2012 at 04:10AM

Warning: This entry contains some disturbing images toward the end of the post.

There are quite a few pictures floating around the internet that show Victorian-era graves covered with iron cages set in concrete. According to these internet sources, the cages were constructed to protect the living, just in case the dead person should turn into a vampire and try to sit up and stagger away from the grave in search of victims. Here’s one example from wikimedia:

Pinterest has a zillion repins of this zombie-cage. I can’t post the actual photo here because I can’t find the original photographer to clear permission, but it’s worth a click-through so you can see I’m not kidding about the zombie explanations.

But the vampire/zombie explanation is urban legend–and a good lesson to you if you’re a kid and don’t get why your teacher says not to believe any old fact you find online. In actual fact, such bars, known as “mortsafes,” were meant not to keep the undead from getting out, but to keep grave robbers and body snatchers from getting in. Body snatching was a serious problem in England and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here are a few other examples of mortsafes:

I guess you can understand why grave robbers would do what they do—a lot of wealthy people were buried with valuables, and those valuables could be sold. But why would someone want a plain, shrouded dead body?

During the heyday of bodysnatching, most of these mortsafes were found close to medical schools. Back then, nobody donated their body to science. People believed in a literal interpretation of resurrection. Your chances of entering the Kingdom of Heaven were slim to none if your body, or that of your loved one, was cut up into bits after death. So about all that was available legally to the anatomists at the medical schools were executed criminals.

But medical students needed cadavers–lots of them–to study and practice upon. So a cottage industry cropped up–people who procured freshly-dead cadavers and sold them to the medical schools.

And the medical students didn’t want any old corpses; they wanted fresh ones, that hadn’t yet decomposed (much). Not surprisingly, perhaps, some unscrupulous body procurers realized they could make even more money if they created fresh corpses themselves. Instructors at the British and American medical schools tended not to ask too many questions about where bodies came from, thereby wittingly or unwittingly sanctioning murder in order to procure enough cadavers. Alcoholics, down-and-outs, and poorhouse inhabitants, whose number may not yet have been up, began to disappear.

According to Mary Roach’s fascinating book, Stiff, The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, many churches began building “dead houses,” which were locked buildings where bodies could be left to decompose until they were in such a state that they were no longer desirable for medical study. And I’ve read several accounts where poor families left dead loved ones inside their homes until the corpse was in an advanced state of decomposition, for fear of the body being snatched and sold to anatomists by unscrupulous undertakers. (And it won’t surprise you that medical dissection labs did not operate during the warm summer months. Imagine the smell.)

Governments at last changed the laws and allowed medical schools to experiment not just on executed criminals, but also upon unclaimed bodies from hospitals, poorhouses, and prisons.


Yes, these are unnerving pictures to look at, but they do drive home the sheer number of bodies needed by medical schools (and these pictures were taken a hundred years ago). I have checked off the “organ donor” box on my driver’s license. If you’re old enough to drive, I hope you’ll consider doing the same thing. Uncomfortable as it is to think about, it’s a really important way you can help advance the cause of medical knowledge.

St Edmund’s church – barred grave photo by Evelyn Simak via Wikimedia
Mortsafe, photo by Mary and Angus Hogg, via Wikimedia
Mortsafe photo by Judy Willson via Wikimedia Commons
Mortsafe photo by Martyn Gorman via Wikimedia Commons
Department of Anatomy at Cambridge University, 1888/93, with thanks to Tuesday Johnson’s Historical Indulgences site:
1900, Sky-lit anatomy lab at Rush Medical College, Wisconsin Historical Society with thanks to Tuesday Johnson’s Historical Indulgences

Sarah Albee: Zap It

From: Sarah Albee
October 11, 2012 at 04:33AM

In 1946, an engineer working with radar transmitters noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had been melted by microwaves. He went on to invent the microwave oven. By 1975, sales of the “Amana Radar Range” exceeded that of gas ranges.


Sarah Albee: Death by Bug

From: Sarah Albee
October 10, 2012 at 05:09AM

According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, the winner of a roach-eating contest collapsed and died shortly after consuming dozens of bugs and worms.


(With thanks to Jonathan Losos.)

Sarah Albee: Curious About George

From: Sarah Albee
October 10, 2012 at 04:31AM

Like many of you, I grew up with Curious George. But it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned the story of the author-illustrators, Hans and Margaret Rey, and their harrowing escape from the Nazis. You can find quite a few accounts of their journey online and elsewhere, including a great nonfiction children’s book, but here are the quick facts.

Both German-born and Jewish, Hans and Margaret moved to Paris after their marriage in 1935. Margaret convinced Hans to quit the family business, selling bathtubs, and the two began collaborating on children’s books. Both of them wrote, and both of them illustrated, in a true team effort.

By 1939, the situation in Paris grew increasingly ominous as the Nazis advanced, and the Reys decided to flee Paris. But it wasn’t easy to assemble the massive amount of documentation required for traveling. And there was no way out by train or by car. During the harrowing wait for the paperwork to go through, Hans managed to build two working bicycles from a collection of parts purchased at a used bicycle store. They brought with them just a little food, even less money, and five children’s book manuscripts, including one about a little monkey named Fifi. The Reys biked out of the city, en route to the Spanish border. Two days after they left, on June 14, 1940, the Nazis seized Paris.

They biked for several days to the town of Orleans, managed to board a train to Spain, and at last got to New York by way of Brazil. Just a few weeks after arriving in New York, they were offered a four-book contract by Houghton Mifflin. The publisher suggested they change Fifi’s name to George. Curious George was published in 1941. Initially Margaret’s name was left off the cover (too many lady authoresses out there, I guess). It was restored on later editions.

Sarah Albee: Clouded Judgment

From: Sarah Albee
October 09, 2012 at 04:29AM

In twelfth century China, judges wore smoke-tinted quartz lenses in court to conceal their eye expressions.

Sarah Albee: Plight of the Honeybees

From: Sarah Albee
October 08, 2012 at 05:16AM

According to a recent article, honeybees in northeastern France have begun producing honey in alarming shades of blue and green. Beekeepers realized the cause was a nearby M&Ms candy factory.

%d bloggers like this: