There’s a Zoo in my Poo by Felice Jacka, illustrated by Rob Craw (Macmillan Australia) is a brilliantly executed explanation of gut health for children. It is both informative and funny and aimed perfectly at children.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Felice.
What has led you to write about gut health for children with such insight and humour?
We are living with a terrible situation wherein unhealthy diet is now the leading cause of illness and early death across the globe, largely through profound changes to our food environments (Big Food). Children are increasingly affected, and this has important implications for their long-term health – both physical and mental – and that of their children. In Australia, many children’s diets are very poor. As just one example, less than half a percent of Australian children eat enough of the key plant foods that we know are so essential to health.
We now understand that the gut, and the bacteria (microbiota) that live there, play a key role in mediating the impact of our diets on our health. Because messages to children (‘don’t eat that, it’s not good for you’) don’t always cut through – because we, as humans, tend to place less importance on something that is off in the future – we thought that making things concrete might have a bigger impact on children’s food choices and that of their parents.
What is the “zoo in your poo”?
While traditionally ‘germs’ have been thought of as bad things, to be avoided and eradicated at all costs, we now know that we have trillions of bacteria that live on and in us that are essential for our health and survival. And that if we don’t look after them, they can’t look after us. The largest number of these bacteria live in our guts where they play a critical role in breaking down foods for us. The molecules that they release when they break down (ferment) plant foods are what we use to run our immune systems and to keep our body and brain healthy. But without the right foods, our ‘zoo’ can’t do what they’re supposed to do.
How can children learn to be the Zookeepers of their own poo?
Whilst our bacteria, bodies, and brains are mind-bendingly complex, what we need to eat to keep them healthy and happy is not actually very complicated at all (thank goodness). We know that children are great at working things out for themselves if they’re given the right information and support, so this book was designed to make it easy and fun to be a good zoo-keeper! It has information and simple recipes to help kids begin to make better food choices.
You have used a couple of different writing styles. These add to the interest of the text. What are their different purposes?
Our aim with the book was for it to be a fun, accessible, and useful tool for pre-schoolers right up to grandparents. So, there are easy rhymes for little ones, but also more juicy and complex information for older kids and adults.
What piece of information do you think children will find particularly interesting?
Possibly that when they do a poo, they become a bit more human than bug for a while!
Why should children play in dirt?
We are increasingly understanding that the gut bacteria in infants and children are very important in guiding brain development as well as the developing immune system. Research tells us that the more diverse our gut microbiota, the better our health, and that children who live in houses where there are pets and other kids tend to have better immune systems. We think that this is because they’re exposed to many different types of bugs. The soil, air and water also have bacteria that we need to survive, so having contact with nature is important for a healthy zoo. That’s not to say that children shouldn’t ever wash their hands! But rather that we shouldn’t be madly disinfecting everything and being terrified of all germs, as some of them are the good guys!
Many foods help gut health. Which do you most highly recommend?
The key winners for gut health are plant foods, particularly those with lots of fibre. Fibre is ‘bug food’ and, without it, we can lose our good bugs and grow our less-friendly bugs. So, vegetables, fruits and – in particular – legumes, such as lentils, beans and chickpeas, are the ones we really need to focus on. Increasing the amount and the diversity of these in the diet can have a big impact in a relatively short time. Add in different types of wholegrains, such as oats, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats and proteins (such as extra virgin olive oil and fish) and you’re going to be ‘pooing like a champion’.
Which food do you think people eat without realising it’s not good for them?
Hmm, I think that most people know what foods to avoid (although that doesn’t mean they always do it!) These are the ultra-processed foods with added sugars, salt, fats, emulsifiers, and other additives. But what new animal research now tells us (although we still need to do more research in humans) is that artificial sugars such as those in diet soft drinks might be damaging to our zoo. They’re probably still better than the ones with sugar in them, but likely not much better. So, I’d suggest finding a way to wean off them and choose something healthier. I have a soda stream and add a little bit of fruit juice to soda water – this is a good alternative.
You’ve included some recipes in There’s a Zoo in my Poo. I made one them as soon as I finished reading the book – Zoo-Poo Stew. Which is your favourite recipe?
I make a version of Zoo-Poo-Stew every week, so this is probably my favourite. It’s cheap and easy, and really nice in winter. In summer I tend to move across to big salads with lots of different green leaves, nuts, wholegrains, and extra virgin olive oil.
Teacher and musician Rob Craw illustrated the book. His style is like that of Dr Seuss. Which is your favourite illustration and why?
Rob is my partner of nearly 35yrs and he’s always kept me, and our children, mightily amused with his drawings. He’s a musician by background but has always loved to draw cartoon characters. I knew he’d be perfect for this job! My favourite one is actually the ‘mucus’ character, living in the stomach. It’s so cute.
Children and their parents and educators will pour over There’s a Zoo in my Poo. Not only is it exciting and fun to read, it shares essential lessons about good health.
We’re facing a massive global public health disaster because of what we are and are not eating. We really hope that this book will prompt children, and their parents, to make better food choices!
Thanks for your responses, Felice, and all the very best with There’s a Zoo in my Poo.