When Glenn Murphy, author of a series of children’s “grossology” books that include titles such as “Why Is Snot Green?” and the recently published “Disgusting Science” (Pan Macmillan), moved from London to the U.S. in 2007, he wasn’t looking to become a dedicated professional writer. He’d been at the National Museum of Science and Industry in South Kensington, London, working in the galleries, writing science programs, and talking to young visitors in the busy museum.
“I became kind of like a de facto expert in science education for kids,” he says.
When it came time to start his own family, Murphy moved to Raleigh. It’s near enough to his Texas-born, Virginia-raised wife’s family and, with its multiple universities and museums, he figured he’d find similar work here. He’d published his first book – “Why Is Snot Green?” – in 2009, and he’d made enough to survive a few months. But then he got another book contract, and another, and before he knew it, writing was his work.
It wasn’t his original plan, but it fit his love of science and his need for conversation. Today, he’s written more than two dozen science books for kids. It isn’t the career he foresaw, but it fits.
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“I never did think of myself as becoming a professional writer,” he says with a shrug. “I just turned into a professional writer, I guess.”
Children led him
Murphy went to the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he got an undergraduate degree in genetics and evolutionary biology. He discovered quickly, though, that he couldn’t stand lab work. He loved thinking, talking and theorizing about science – the exciting stuff – but not spending eight hours a day isolated in a lab and moving tiny volumes of water around.
“I’ve always been very chatty,” he says. “The kind of sitting silent at a lab bench kind of thing never appealed that much.”
He spent time in Japan, where he met his wife, then returned to Britain where he earned a Master’s in science journalism. But he didn’t like the fast pace or quick turnaround of deadline-driven journalism, either, so he found museum work – and he loved it.
Until then, he’d had little experience with children. Yet the London museum, which sees a steady stream of visitors in peak season, put him in direct contact with curious kids who asked probing questions about the grosser aspects of science. And this is where he learned the approach that has made his books so successful – books that have been translated into at least a dozen languages, some selling upwards of 350,000 copies.
That’s a lot of prospective scientists.
“The more excited kids we have coming into the field, the better we are 10, 20 years from now,” says Dr. Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and food safety specialist at N.C. State University. “I’ve got a couple of kids – my oldest is 6 – and this is exactly the kind of stuff that gets him excited about science.”
Getting their attention
To that end, Murphy answers actual kids’ questions in his books, curiosities like “do rabbits fart and, if so, why can’t we smell them?” and “why is snot green?” Everything he writes is vetted by experts like Chapman, who is profiled in “Disgusting Science.”
Murphy loves the sheer quantity of global experts in the immediate area – just reach out an arm, he says, and you can find one – and his books show kids the sheer cool factor of research jobs. Science at the university level, Murphy points out, can involve studying how a panther is put together, say, or building a biomechanical robot that imitates a snake. These are jobs kids – and some adults – likely have never even heard of; these are jobs like Chapman’s, and he often leans on the same tricks as Murphy. For adults as well as kids, after all, gross is fascinating.
“Sometimes the individuals I’m communicating with, it’s hard to get them too excited about food safety,” Chapman says. “But when you can share stories about a vomit event or a norovirus that spreads billions of virus particles throughout a restaurant and can stick there for six weeks, you get people’s attention.”
Review of ‘Disgusting Science’
By Tula Leonard, age 8
The book “Disgusting Science” by Glenn Murphy is about things that are gross like koala babies licking their mother’s poo to cover their stomachs in bacteria for protection, Virginia opossums playing dead by releasing a horrible odor and burying beetles raising their young on a corpse.
One of many things I learned was that some desert turtles will spray you right in the face with their pee if they’re scared.
I think that this is a good book for elementary students like me – or an adult if they like gross things.
My favorite part is when the author talks about gross foods, like eating fried scorpions or maggot cheese. I learned that people will eat some very gross things that some Americans would not prefer. For example: civet poo-covered coffee beans in Indonesia and sour herring left to rot in barrels of salty water in Sweden.
I only think this book is a little gross but other people might think it’s super gross. If I have to choose a DISGUSTING part it would be sipping a glass of snake blood – people actually do this.
I really liked the illustrations and also the facts in this book. I would also like to read his other books.
Tula Leonard is a third-grader at Follow the Child Montessori School in Raleigh.
Other Glenn Murphy titles
“How Loud Can You Burp?”
“Why Is Snot Green?”
“Poo! What Is That Smell?”
“Super Geek! Robots, Space and Furry Animals”
“Super Geek! Dinosaurs, Brains and Super Trains”
“Predators and the Whole Tooth-and-Claw Story”
More info on Murphy’s books at panmacmillan.com/author/glennmurphy