Chico author Janice Condon’s new book introduces children to the importance of gut flora
When it comes to fantastical places filled with strange characters, Alice’s fictional Wonderland seems almost pedestrian in comparison to the complexity of the human gut microbiome, a place where trillions of micro-organisms work to digest food and fend off pathogens, toxins and other potentially harmful agents.
Chico author Janice Condon hopes to give children a better understanding of not just the complex world inside of our own digestive tract, but also the importance of each step of the digestive process with her new illustrated book, Lulu Meets the King of Poo.
The book, published in November by London-based Austin Macauley Publishers, tells the story of Lulu, a little girl who falls asleep with a chocolate cake-induced stomach ache and dreams that she has swallowed a tiny version of herself. After meeting Emily Enzyme and the other enzymes in her stomach, Lulu moves into the small intestine, where she meets Abby Acidophilus hula dancing in the finger-like villi. In her colon, Lulu encounters the King of Poo and Stanley Stem Cell before entering the blood stream and eventually being sneezed back out into the real world, where she awakens with the perfect idea for her upcoming science project.
“My goal is that kids and adults know that there’s something alive inside them that’s very connected to their health, so that maybe they’ll think a little more about what they put into their mouths,” Condon said during a recent interview.
Though Condon is a retired occupational therapist, her interest in the gut microbiome doesn’t stem from anything she learned during her medical training. In fact, the various flora present in the gut weren’t even part of the curriculum.
“I never, ever learned that there was acidophilus, or bifidus or even digestive enzymes,” Condon said. “Stem cells hadn’t even been discovered by then. I knew about the anatomical structures of, say, the small intestines and villi in the intestines that wave, but how about all these billions and billions … of gut bacteria? They’re the ones that digest your food. Isn’t that incredible? The villi alone don’t do anything—it’s the bacteria.”
Condon’s quest to illuminate the inner workings of the microbiome are rooted in her experience as an “antibiotic kid,” whose own beneficial gut bacteria she says were killed off by repeated use of antibiotics during childhood. According to Condon, this decimation of her gut flora led to leaky gut syndrome, a condition where the intestine fails to properly control what passes from the gut into the bloodstream. In turn, this led to skin conditions, mental fatigue and a host of other afflictions. Different doctors tried to treat the symptoms but failed to discover the root of her illness.
It wasn’t until Condon went to a meeting of a local chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation that things started to make sense. According to its website, the foundation is a nonprofit “dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism.” Named after Weston Price, a dentist who traveled the world in the 1930s to study the health of preindustrial civilizations, the foundation promotes the consumption of unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
Condon credits the Weston Price gut and psychology syndrome (GAPS) diet with not only helping her overcome her chronic health issues, but also starting her on the path to become a children’s author.
“It just helped me understand that these lowly microbes, these little funny gut creatures, have a lot to do with our health,” Condon said about her experience with the diet. “And that’s why I kept thinking, ‘How do I share this? A children’s book, of course.’ Parents read it to them and if it makes them laugh, that’s even better.”
Condon says her first book, the self-published Charlie the Acidophilus, offered a learning experience that paved the way for her next book, Stella’s Adventures in the Incredible BioTerrain. Lulu Meets the King of Poo takes the concepts from Condon’s first two books, smooths around the edges and distills them into an easily readable, kid-friendly tale with illustrations from Paradise artist Steve Ferchaud.
The book has been selling well so far in the U.K., where the book’s publisher is based, Condon said, and now it’s available at bookstores in the U.S. as well as online retailers such as Amazon. Following the book’s release, Condon has been working to promote it, including with a YouTube video for “Do the Acidophilus Hula (with Lulu),” a song inspired by one of Lulu’s adventures in the book. Condon has also been reading the book at elementary schools throughout Chico and seeing how the material goes over with its target audience.
“I read it in classrooms,” Condon said. “I’ve read it at Rosedale, Chapman, Montessori and Notre Dame. Fifth grade is a little too sophisticated for it. But the best questions come from the first-graders because they’re so uninhibited.”
Alongside questions regarding bodily functions—the book does feature a character named the King of Poo, after all—Condon says that students frequently ask about her experience as an author.
“They have so many questions,” Condon said. “‘What’s it like to be a writer?’ I say, ‘Write your book. Start it and write it. Because it leads you to so many things.’”