Poop fiction - Using irreverent humor to get children reading

Friday, April 30, 2004

CHICAGO -- Glenn Murray blushes a hearty shade of red when a cashier at a Chicago deli recognizes him: "Heyyyyyy!" the young man shouts gleefully -- and loudly. "You're the fart-man!"

Murray, an educator-turned-children's author from Canada, is still getting used to the ruckus over two books he co-wrote. They feature "Walter the Farting Dog," a flatulent pooch whose little problem saves the day time and time again.

The content may seem quirky and even off-color to some. But these days, potty humor is big in the world of popular children's literature -- from the "Captain Underpants" series to such best-selling titles as "Zombie Butts from Uranus!"

Parents jokingly call the genre the child's version of pulp fiction -- or "poop fiction."

Smelly ambassador

"You gotta give kids something they want to read," says Murray, who firmly believes that his smelly but well-meaning protagonist has become an ambassador for literacy.

Kaylee Paul, a 6-year-old from Riverside, Calif., has latched onto Captain Underpants, a cross between a cartoon and a chapter book, written by author Dav Pilkey. Her favorite is about the "Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy."

"I like to read it every day. I really, really do," Kaylee says. She's been inspired to create her own cartoon series -- "about a chubby man that farts everywhere he goes," she explains, then giggles.

Editors at Scholastic Inc., which publishes Captain Underpants, say that's the goal -- especially when it comes to children who are "reluctant readers."

"For many, many kids, this is the first book they read that starts them on a path of reading," says Barbara Marcus, president of Scholastic's children's books division.

Librarians call such stories "book hooks," says Barbara Genco, immediate past president of Association of Library Services to Children.

"I don't want to be a prude about it," says detractor Sister St. John Delany, a nun who heads the School of Education at New York's Pace University. "I just don't think kids need to be exposed to that kind of language."

Murray -- who's worked in the education field as an administrator and consultant -- is well aware of the "two camps," those who love Walter and those who turn up their noses.

But the author from Fredericton, New Brunswick, still hopes his books become a classic of another breed.

The inspiration for Walter came from a story co-author William Kotzwinkle told Murray about a real 150-pound bull mastiff whose troubles with gas came from the beer and doughnuts his owners fed him.

While they wrote the first book more than a decade ago, it took several more years to persuade a publisher to print it.

Now each book carries a simple dedication: "For everyone who's ever felt misjudged or misunderstood."

On the Net: Association of Library Services to Children: http://www.ala.org/ala/alsc/alsc.htm

Martha Irvine is a national writer specializing in coverage of people in their 20s and younger. She can be reached at mirvine(at)ap.org

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