I Eat Poop. Now That I Have Your Attention, an Interview…
I’m not much of what you might call a fan of the scatalogical. Poop jokes? None for me thanks, I’m all good. So while I can sit back and appreciate the marketing chutzpah of a picture book with the title I Eat Poop, it wouldn’t normally be something I’d pick up . . . unless the creator was someone I found interesting. Mark Pett? He is interesting. I think the first Pett book I came to really love was The Girl and the Bicycle back in the day. He’ll illustrate books by other people, as you might expect, but in the case of today’s book, that one is all him. I Eat Poop is . . . well, I better leave this particular plot description to the experts:
Dougie has a secret: he’s not a ground beetle.
He’s a dung beetle, and he loves eating poop.
Dougie knows he should be proud. Dung beetles help process waste and do other extraordinary things! But Dougie also knows that if anyone at school saw his lunch, he’d be an outcast.
One day, the lunchroom bugs out over a classmate eating poop, and Dougie must make a choice. Can he stand up for his friend—and for his true self?
Then I actually read the book and doggone it. It’s actually really sweet and smart. I could hold out no longer. It was time to ask Mr. Pett a couple questions, because I was legitimately curious about this stuff:
Betsy Bird: Mark! Thank you so much for joining me on my blog. Now I’m going to confess to you right off the bat that when I heard the name of your picture book I was, to put it mildly, skeptical. There are a lot of scatalogical books in the children’s literary world and they’re not all equally good. Then I actually read I EAT POOP and I was completely charmed. How did this book come to you in the first place?
Mark Pett: Betsy! Thanks so much for having me. I’m a big fan. Thank you, too, for your very kind words about my little book.
Hooray! It sounds like I achieved my objective with the title. I actually wanted the title to be a bit off-putting and I wanted the reader to come to the story with a few preconceived ideas. Then I wanted to subvert the reader’s assumptions with the cover image, which is one of loneliness and a little sadness, and ultimately with the story itself.
I initially conceived of this book concept about 10 years ago. In fact, the first few pages are remarkably similar to my initial concept, title and cover included. I loved the idea of a dung beetle who was so ashamed of eating poop that he had to hide his lunch from the other bugs at school. I knew, however, that if I were to take on such a “gimmicky” title and concept, the story had better be terrific. My initial ideas for the story fell short, in my opinion, so I kept it in a drawer until a story emerged that was worthy.
BB: Well, and there’s always a risk with any book with the word “poop” in the title that it’s going to turn off more adults than the children it attracts. The European picture book market, I should note, doesn’t seem to have this problem. And you’re upfront about the content from the start. Was this book always going to be called “I EAT POOP” from the beginning? And how did the book evolve since you first wrote it?
MP: The book was always going to be called “I Eat Poop.” I felt strongly about that. I fully recognize that it is a gimmicky title and risks alienating readers. My hope, however, is that I can draw the reader in with the cover image and opening sequence and pull them into a story that truly rewards them.
Initially, I had something of a zany story that had Dougie emerging heroically and becoming the toast of his school. I didn’t feel the story had the depth of feeling to justify such a scatological concept, however. So I waited. I noodled. I pondered. I sketched. Eventually, a story emerged that I felt perfectly captured the heart and tone for which I was searching.
BB: The tone is, as you say, so key. Part of what I love about the book is that at one point the insects all confess to their own particular peculiarities and weirdnesses. What kind of research did you have to do to come up with all these facts (for example, the fact that dragonflies breathe through their tummies was new to me)?
MP: Thank you. This was one of the really fun aspects of this book. I researched all kinds of insects and loved turning them into awkward middle school characters. We had such a plethora of delightful characters that we decided to fill the end pages with yearbook entries. Honestly, I could easily fill a dozen more books with them.
BB: Along the same lines, I’m interested in the balance you have to pull off with this book. There must be a degree to which there’s simply too much poop. Or did you not feel like you had any limitations in that way?
MP: It was fun to indulge in the scatological aspects of this book, but I never wanted the reader to be grossed out. I avoided any close-up depictions of poop for this reason. While I loved talking about eating poop tarts for breakfast and poopsicles for dessert, I didn’t want it to be a distraction from the really important story that was happening. It was definitely something of a tightrope walk and I hope I succeeded.
BB: I’d say you did. All kinds of kids can read and identify with this book, but who would you say is the perfect reader?
MP: I’ve always written books that I would have wanted to read as a kid. And I’ve always written stories that I thought adults might want or need to hear, as well. Picture books, after all, have always served as conduits between adults and children. They’re stories we experience together, usually through reading aloud — and, hopefully, multiple times.
Children are navigating difficult terrain, trying to find that balance of fitting in and discovering who they are. I dare say, adults are often still navigating this same difficult terrain. I Eat Poop is for anyone who is trying to find the courage to be true to themselves in the face of uncertain consequences.
BB: Was there anything you wanted to include and just couldn’t?
MP: The theme of this book, really, is “own your poop.” It might have been fun to use a different word. 😉
BB: *snort* Okay, finally, what are you working on next?
MP: Hear me out. I’d really like to do a musical of I Eat Poop. Musicals have the capacity to strike a uniquely poignant and heartfelt note. I’d also love to expand the cast of insect characters. It’s such an amazing and weird world.
Thank you again, Betsy, for reading I Eat Poop and for your kind words about it. I’m thrilled to see it come to light.
Many thanks to Morgan Rath and the folks at Macmillan for setting up this interview. Thanks too, of course, to Mark for his patience in answering these questions and his wry sense of humor that led to this book in the first place. I Eat Poop is on shelves everywhere right now, so go check it out!
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
SLJ Blog Network