“Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Was it the great Shakes who said: A nose by any other name would smell as accurately? Yes, I think he was the one. And I think he was talking about the young James Kelly in search of a career, of something that would make him special.

His future was out there. He could almost smell it.

LOL, this book is a pleasure to read in its wordplay, lyrical language, and snappy pacing that will keep kids turning those pages. Who can almost smell it? THE James Kelly, aka Smelly Kelly, stench detective for the NY City subway during the early to mid 1900s.

Text ©️Beth Anderson, Illustration ©️Jenn Harney

The man’s highly sensitive nose sniffed out leaks of all kinds: natural gas, gasoline, water, and ??? But he also trained his ears to hear sounds that others were oblivious to, like drips and hisses.

He invented tools to help him do his job, and walked ten miles of track every day, discovering an average of eight leaks in those ten miles. He was on call 24/7, and on occasion saved the lives of people who fell onto the tracks. Exhausted by the nonstop work, he trained a team to sniff and listen, using his specialized techniques and devices. It’s estimated that he covered 100,000 miles of underground track during his career, which makes me wonder how often he had to replace his shoes?!

This is a fascinating and fun story about a man with a special gift, who single-handedly, at first, saved many lives by detecting all sorts of leaks in the labyrinth of pipes below New York City.

I will divulge nothing about the mystery stench at the 42nd Street subway station that Smelly Kelly tracks and solves. It’s hilarious to discover what lies beneath the streets of one of the world’s most celebrated cities!

A note about the art: Jenn Harney’s illustrations create a suitable and fun retro vibe, but it’s the banana-slug-green swirls of scent that steal the show in this book. The color is the perfect representation of all those “off” smells that make you feel a little queazy. And there are several marvelously layered spreads depicting subway tunnels and other infrastructure below the streets, along with the streets above them. Bravo!

Back matter adds even more—ah—pungency to Smelly Kelly’s accomplishments and some cool stats about the miles of infrastructure that lie below the streets of the Big Apple. Love this book!


Test your nose: Using common items you’ll find at home, including lemon, orange, or lime peels; hardboiled eggs or sliced fruits and vegetables; spices like rosemary, oregano, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg; or other things you have around the house that have an odor (including toothpaste and soaps). Put on a blindfold, and have a tester move the item or a small amount of the item underneath your nose. See if you can identify what you’re smelling.

Beth’s fabulous educator’s guide contains a host of additional activities that teachers and home schoolers can use in their lesson plans.

Pair this book with Josh Funk’s The Case of the Stinky Stench.

Title: “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses

Author: Beth Anderson

Illustrator: Jenn Harney

Publisher: Calkins Creek – Boyds Mills & Kane, 2020

Ages: 1st-5th grade

Themes: New York City, occupations, subways, senses

For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.

9 thoughts on ““Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses – Perfect Picture Book Friday

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, it’s truly wonderful! And I, too, find it somewhat astounding how long picture book authors have to wait to see their books in print. Seems like we should be able to shave off a year somewhere in that three-year cycle, LOL.

  1. Sarah Tobias says:

    This sounds great, though my nose keeps squinching up at the thought of some of the smells.

    Growing up near Chicago and often meandering through downtown, the smells both good (Garrett’s Popcorn, and Lou Malnoti’s pizza to name two) and the bad(sour garbage, and the underground smells wafting from the grates in the sidewalks) made my brain spin and my stomach wobble between desire and disgust.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, I get you. In San Francisco, the city’s rainwater run-off system is still combined in some places to overflow with the sewer system during heavy rains. And then when it doesn’t rain for months, the smell from every street grate can send you reeling. I hope this book doesn’t give you olfactory hallucinations.

  2. Patricia Tilton says:

    So happy to see this book receiving so much book love! I look forward to reading it. An unusual topic, but one kids will have fun with — and it sends a message to kids about everyone has a gift or talent. Enjoyed the video!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I think it’s awesome to celebrate those who would otherwise be placed in the category of unsung heroes. And I think it’s also important to give kids the understanding that there are many different types of occupations, other than the obvious ones within the realm of their limited experience.

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