History from
the Bottom Up

The Flask at Hand

Medieval and Renaissance-era physicians were forbidden by the Church to cut into a body, living or dead. That distasteful work was left to the barber surgeons. So in order to diagnose a patient’s problem, physicians couldn’t do much besides checking the patient’s pulse and examining the person’s “output,” i.e., his urine (and, occasionally, poop).

I’ve been doing image research for a book, and it’s extraordinary how many pictures you stumble across of physicians examining urine. Have a look:Al-RaziInGerardusCremonensis1250 Nuremberg_chronicles_f_242r_3_(Jacobus_de_forlivio) Physician_examining_urine._Wellcome_M0018403 Doctor_examining_urine_of_a_woman_patient._Wellcome_L0000966 A_physician_examining_a_urine_flask_Wellcome_L0018047 Toorenvliet;_uroscopy_scene_(Budapest)._Wellcome_M0018404 A_physician_examining_a_urine-flask._Oil_painting_by_Gerard_Wellcome_V0017296 A_physician_examining_a_urine-flask_brought_by_a_woman._Oil_Wellcome_V0017274A A_physician_(?)_examining_a_urine-flask._Oil_painting_by_an_Wellcome_V0017272A_physician_examining_a_urine_specimen_with_book_and_chemica_Wellcome_V0016084


Hickory Stick Signing

Yesterday I did a reading and signing at the beautiful Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington, CT. It was a great turnout—including lots of grownups!!

I was especially happy that so many people requested that I inscribe copies to sons, nephews, and grandsons. When the parent of a six-year-old boy told him the book was for him and his sister and showed him the cover, he said, “Awesome! A costume book!” Good enough for me.

If you are ever passing through northwest Connecticut, do stop in at the Hickory Stick. It’s a fantastic store.

[caption … Read more

Catherine’s Coup

Peter III

In the course of my research for my next book, which is about poison, I did some reading about Catherine the Great. I’d come across a reference that mentioned that her violent, sulky, deeply reviled husband, Peter III, had been poisoned.

Turns out, he probably wasn’t, but the story of their marriage is still pretty fascinating.

Catherine (née Sophia) was a young German princess who married Peter III in 1745, when she was 16 years old. He was 17, the proclaimed heir to the Russian throne, and the … Read more

Tucson Festival of Books 2015

I’m heading home today from my weekend in Arizona at the Tucson Festival of Books. I ran a nonfiction writing workshop and was on a panel with three other amazing writers (Loree Griffin Burns, Helaine Becker, and Elizabeth Rusch) about science writing for kids. (I was the history-of-science representative on the panel.)

Some highlights:

Friday night I attended the Rock Bottom Remainders benefit concert. It’s a band made up of writers and it’s been in existence for twenty years, with a revolving cast of characters, and they … Read more

Author Visit, Squadron Line Elementary School

Yesterday I had a delightful visit at the Squadron Line Elementary School in Simsbury, Connecticut. I couldn’t have asked for a lovelier reception, or a more beautiful school library in which to present, or a funnier librarian (Mr. Sepa) to introduce me, or a more enthusiastic group of fourth, fifth, and sixth grade kids.

Here I am, explaining where people dumped their chamber pots (out the window).

And here I am, talking about my new book, and showing the kids what these kids all have in common. I … Read more

Candy Man

The toy is inside the plastic container, which is inside the chocolate egg. Come on, is this not the coolest toy/treat ever?

I don’t usually do obituaries on this blog, but I couldn’t let the recent passing of Michelle Ferrero go unacknowledged, as he made history in his own right.

He was the candy maker who invented Tic Tacs, Nutella, and the chocolates called Ferrero Rocher. He died, one might say appropriately, this past Valentine’s day. With his vast riches and reclusive lifestyle, he was sort of a real-life version of … Read more

World Read Aloud Day 2015

World Read Aloud Day is one of my favorite days of the year. And this year, due to (my) deadlines and travel, I expanded it a day before and a day after into World Read Aloud Day(s), skyping with multiple classrooms on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Thanks to Ms. Barry’s fifth graders for kicking off the celebration on Tuesday! And on Wednesday (the official WRAD), I spoke with Ms. Merced’s classes in Chicago. A highlight, besides their wonderful questions, was their array of cool cheers. Here they are (posted with permission!):

The … Read more

Wednesday, March 4th is World Read Aloud Day

Did you know that March 4th is World Read Aloud Day?
It’s organized by LitWorld as part of their Global Literacy Movement. You can read about it here.
My schedule for Wednesday has been full for quite some time now, but if you are looking for an author who might still be available, you can click here to visit Kate Messner’s blog, where she maintains a list of authors available to Skype. Happy WRAD!

Ruff Times


In my new book I have a section about ruff collars—those accordion-like, cartwheel-shaped gizmos that were in style from about 1530 to 1630. That’s a long time to be in fashion, expecially considering how incredibly ungainly and impractical (not to say unattractive) these things were. The Dutch wore them for even longer—they seemed to prefer being intentionally out of style. Even working people wore them, although theirs tended to be a much smaller version–because they had to work for a living.

Making a ruff required huge skill and … Read more

Thanks, Southeast Elementary School!

Sometimes when I arrive at a school for an author visit, I have a feeling as soon as I step inside the building that it will be a great day. That’s what happened on Friday when I visited Southeast Elementary School in Mansfield, CT.

There were welcome posters hanging in the hallways, and this little basket of goodies awaiting me in the conference room, where I signed dozens and dozens of books. I spoke with three different groups, from PreK to fourth grade, and they were full of great questions that kept … Read more

Page 1 of 10612345...102030...Last »