Book Review: Rotten! Vultures, Beetles, Slime, and Nature’s Other Decomposers by Anita Sanchez, illus by Gilbert Ford


Review by Emily Aguiló-Pérez

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: What’s that terrible smell? Plug your nose! Run! Something smells…rotten! But rotten isn’t always bad. If nothing ever rotted, nothing could live. Decomposition seems like the last stop on the food chain, but it’s just the beginning. When dead things rot, they give life to a host of other creatures. So who are these decomposers? Sharks and vultures feast on animal carcasses. Worms, maggots, and dung beetles devour decaying plant and animal matter. Decomposition is happening everywhere: oceans, forests, in your backyard—even between your teeth! It’s nature’s way of creating energy for all living things. So unplug your nose! Open this book to uncover the dirty rotten truth about one of nature’s most fascinating processes.

MY TWO CENTS: Who knew learning about dung beetles, worms, vultures, mummies, and numerous other “rotten” things could be so much fun?! In this informative book, Anita Sanchez provides so many facts about decomposition. I learned, for instance, about the different kinds of dung beetles and how they create their homes out of dung. It’s fascinating! I also learned about the decomposition process of a tree log and why it doesn’t smell terrible (even though one would think anything rotten would smell badly). The book also touches on items that do not decompose and the dangers they pose for nature. Speaking about plastic, it explains that “landfills are overflowing with plastic that’s sitting there, not decomposing. But even worse is the plastic that doesn’t make it into a landfill” (65).

Eighty-three pages of information can seem like a lot for a young reader, but Sanchez’s writing paired with the engaging and colorful illustrations by Gilbert Ford truly provide a fun learning experience. The book is divided into eight chapters, each one focusing on a different decomposer. Each chapter has a variety of sections that provide focused information on the specific topic, using stories, humorous snapshots, and creative illustrations. Some of my favorite recurring sections were “Decomposer Selfie,” which provides short bits of information about an animal or organism, and “Rot It Yourself,” which offers brief experiment directions. There is much to enjoy in this book! It would make a great addition to any library.

TEACHING TIPS: The book naturally lends itself to a science classroom (especially upper elementary and middle grades). There are experiments students can perform and which do not require too many materials. In addition, students can use the bibliography that is included at the end of the book to perform further research on a specific topic, animal, organism, etc. presented in the book.

In addition, this book is a wonderful model for various approaches to informational or non-fiction writing. Because it uses narratives, short blurbs, longer texts, descriptions, comparisons, process analysis, and images, among others, students can learn about and develop their own skills for writing non-fiction.


Anita Sanchez--author photoABOUT THE AUTHOR: (from the dust jacket) Anita Sanchez loves to explore nature, even the stinky, slimy parts of it. She dug into the world of rot by creating a compost pile, viewing vultures, watching worms, and even swimming with (very small) sharks. Check out her blog about unloved plants and animals at




ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: (from the dust jacket) Gilbert Ford feels spoiled rotten for getting to spend all his time drawing. He is the author and illustrator of The Marvelous Thing That Came from a Spring and How the Cookie Crumbled. He has also illustrated the award-winning Mr. Ferris and His Wheel, Soldier Song, Itch!, and many middle grade novels. He lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Learn more about his work at





headshotABOUT THE REVIEWER: Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez is an Assistant Professor of English (Children’s Literature) at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  Her teaching and research are in the areas of children’s literature (particularly Latinx literature), girlhood studies, and children’s cultures. Her published work has focused on girlhood as represented in literature and Puerto Rican girls’ identity formation with Barbie dolls. She has presented research on Latinx children’s books at various conferences and has served on children’s book award committees such as the 2017 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and the 2018 Pura Belpré Award. Currently, she is part of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s “A Baker’s Dozen” committee.

From STEM to STEAM, Latino-Style

By Margarita Engle

Children are natural scientists. They ask, “Why?” They poke, peer, dissect, observe, and marvel. Sometimes they reach conclusions. Since children are also natural storytellers, the conclusions might be imaginative, rather than verifiable. That’s okay. For both children and adults, curiosity and a spirit of wonder are just the starting places for learning about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine). Skills, information, and experience must follow. Without a suitable educational background, Latinos will be left behind in the twenty-first century rush toward jobs that require specialization.

I am not a specialist. Despite my training as an agronomist and botanist, I still love simple nature walks, with plenty of aha moments of amazement. That’s why I’m so thrilled that poetry and other creative approaches are being introduced into the teaching of science, especially at the elementary level, creating STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Medicine).

Poetry, after all, springs from the same sense of wonder as science, and is rooted in the same combination of observation and wonder. The arts allow us to learn with all five senses. Doesn’t it make sense to let children read, write, paint, sing, and have fun, while studying facts?

Fortunately, educators are already introducing the arts into STEM teaching. The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (Pomelo Books) includes many bilingual poems about a wide variety of concepts. Taking the lead among Latinos, Pat Mora made sure that Día de los Niños offered mini-grants to libraries planning STEAM events in April, 2015. Other grassroots programs have sprung up in recent years, including the Americas Latino Eco-Festival, which promotes environmental activism for Latinos, and AZUL, which invites Latinos to become coastal and ocean stewards.

For someone like me, with a deep love of nature, and my own odd combination of scientific and creative training, STEAM education offers a chance to write new kinds of books for children and young adults.

  final Silver People cover-1  MountainDog.highrescvr  OrangutankaFrontCvr

In my verse novel, Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal (Harcourt, 2014), I blended history with rain forest biology. In two forthcoming picture books, Orangutanka, a Story in Poems (Holt, 2015), and The Sky Painter, Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist (Two Lions, fall, 2015), I’ve been thrilled by the opportunity to show animal and human interactions. In Mountain Dog, winner of the first ALBA (Americas Latino Book Award), I incorporated hiking safety and outdoor skills into a middle grade adventure story.

As STEAM efforts grow, I hope that educators, librarians, parents, scientists, environmentalists, writers, and illustrators can all join together to make sure that teaching methods honor the natural curiosity of children.


Margarita Engle, hiding so search and rescue dogs can practice finding a lost hikerMargarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many young adult verse novels about the island, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino, and The Lighting Dreamer, recipient of the 2014 PEN USA Award. Other honors include multiple Pura Belpré and Américas Awards, the Jane Addams, International Reading Association, Claudia Lewis, and MANA Las Primeras Awards.

Margarita grew up in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during summers with her extended family in Cuba. Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings, a Memoir (Atheneum, August, 2015) tells the story of those childhood visits, leading up to the loss of travel rights after the Missile Crisis. Margarita was trained as a botanist and agronomist, before studying creative writing with Tomás Rivera. She lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the wilderness to help train her husband’s search and rescue dogs.