Book Stank: The Picture Book Conundrum
Not too long ago a reader made a comment about one of the books I’d been promoting on this site. She wrote, “Hey, Betsy, I promise I’m not trying to troll, but I have one question/misgiving abt this book. It is the stinkiest new picture book I’ve ever read! It just hit our new book shelf. I was excited to read it, but the smell of this book is overwhelming! I’ve tried standing it up with the pages fanned out. That worked for 1 reading, but the smell isn’t really fading. Have you noticed this w your copies? While I am something of a book sniffer, I’ve never had an adverse response like this one. I feel a bit nutty.”
As luck would have it, when I read this comment I happened to be in my local children’s bookstore, Booked. I looked at my friends there. They looked at me. Next thing you know we had every copy in the store open, our noses pressed inside like we were members of some kind of highly literary drug cult. After some thorough sniffs it was determined that while the book may have a bit of an unpleasant aroma, my reader may have gotten her hands on a particularly bad batch.
Even so, it got me to thinking. We discuss the sight and feel and sound of books so often that sometimes we neglect a discussion of how books strike our olfactory senses. For example, if you’ve ever walked into a used bookstore that’s been around for a while, you’ll notice how that “old book smell” permeates the air. I can attest that underneath the main building for NYPL, in the stacks, that smell was thick and rich and powerful. Now we like that smell. In fact, Science ABC has a nice piece called Why Do Books Smell So Good? that explains the chemistry behind both the smell of new and old books. As they say:
“Old books have a sweet smell with notes of vanilla flowers and almonds, which is caused by the breakdown of chemical compounds in the paper, while new books smell like they do because of the carious chemicals used when they are manufactured.”
All well and good, but what about the bad book smell you’ll sometimes come across, particularly in older picture books? I don’t mean a musty smell that comes from stuffing your books in a damp basement somewhere. I mean that very particular stink that comes from an older book when you crack it open. The article doesn’t cover this, and I think I know why. In most pieces you’ll encounter (with titles like Why do books smell the way they do? and Where does the smell of old books come from?) the authors are talking about books for adults. In fact, the book stink that I remember so keenly as a kid is, in my experience, specific to certain types of older picture books. Amazingly, while you can find numerous articles comparing older adult books to smelling like vanilla and cut grass, nowhere can you find a serious discussion of smelly picture books.
So what makes them stink? Well, if the compounds in the good book smell come from within the paper as it breaks down over time, then the bad book smell may have something to do with the breakdown of the adhesives that bind the book together, as this chart from Science ABC attests:
Now you know that it’s probably safe to say that somewhere out there in the world is a human that knows the entire history of American book binding adhesives as used by binders throughout the late 20th and early 21st century. They could probably tell you precisely which glues are cheap and should be avoided and which ones present the best scent. About eight years ago I was at an ALA Conference and I met with a small publisher who informed me that the bindings of their books were superior to that of the competition because they paid extra for the good smelling binding glue.
Which brings us to the books of the large publishers today. The brand new 2019 book with a peculiar scent is interesting to me for any number of reasons. Will its scent fade with time? Will it persist, or even get stronger as the glue breaks down over the years? Is this a new glue found in other books? Are these books just little ticking time bombs, waiting to bombard children’s librarians and used bookstore retailers with their smell in the future?
The mind boggles.
Seems to me that the safest route in all of this is just to stick with the old books that stink because they’re supposed to. At least that way you’ll get odiferous surprises. They just won’t be unexpected.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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