“Zack Freeman woke out of a deep sleep to see his butt perched on the edge of his bedroom window. It was standing on two pudgy little legs, silhouetted against the moon, its little sticklike arms outstretched in front of it, as if it was about to dive. … This was not the first time Zack's butt had run away."
Thus begins Andy Griffiths' bestselling novel, The Day My Butt Went Psycho! The cover states that the novel is "based on a true story." Okay.
In a "warning" to readers, the publishers write: "This book is full of disobedient butts, runaway butts, psycho butts, kamikaze butts, exploding butts, nuclear butts, giant unwiped butts, butt rallies, buttcatchers, butt-fighters, Butt Hunters, buttguns, and explosive buttcanoes. And, as if all this wasn't bad enough, it's also full of truly disgusting animals like giant maggots, mutant blowflies, poopoises, butt-piranhas, and butt stinkants."
Of course, the publisher's warning is part of the book's come-on. I took the bait and read The Day My Butt Went Psycho! in one sitting, as it were.
As an old curmudgeon, I acknowledge that I love this book. A recent Wall Street Journal article, where I learned of The Day My Butt Went Psycho!, describes it as belonging to the genre known as "Blood-and-Guts Lit."
Since my initiation, I've read and thoroughly enjoyed several other books in the genre, including Vlad the Impaler: The Real Count Dracula and Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger.
Beneath their irreverence and zaniness, these books have a worthy purpose, according to the Journal: "Publishers are hawking more gory and gross books to appeal to an elusive market: boys — many of whom would rather go to the dentist than crack open Little House on the Prairie. Booksellers are also catering to teachers and parents desperate to make young males more literate."
Scholastic Corp. is a leader in this niche. Ellie Berger, who heads Scholastic's trade division, said booksellers know that today's boys will not read the stodgy books of old. In 2007, American publishers released 261 new fiction titles for boys, which doubled the number for 2003. Even more dramatically, they also released 29 nonfiction works last year, up from just four in 2003.
Why the focus on boys?
Simply put, publishers, looking for new markets, have mined the research showing that schools have failed to use the works that motivate boys to read and to love reading.
During an interview with the Journal, Boise State University education professor Jeffrey Wilhelm, who has conducted years of research on reading and literacy, said a major part of the problem with boys is that teachers assign novels about "relationships," such as marriage, that girls find interesting but boys find boring.
Wilhelm said that select nonfiction, such as sports and science and "edgy" fiction, such as Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger, appeal to boys. Other experts argue that while girls spend more time reading the printed page, boys prefer computers and video games.
A major outcome of this dichotomy, many scholars argue, is that boys lag far behind girls in reading by the 12th grade.
My interview with Alex Stover, an 8-year-old third-grader at Bay Point Elementary School in St. Petersburg, is illustrative. Alex is the kind of boy Scholastic and other booksellers want to reach.
"What kind of stuff do you like to read?" I asked.
"I like electronic stuff," Alex said. "I once read a car manual because I wondered how car electronics work. I read fact books, like the Book of World Records, a book called How It's Made and another book called Discover How Things Work. I like science and math books, too. I take a writing class, but I'm not a fan of writing. I do like experimenting. I like all kinds of electrical stuff.
"Sometimes I ask my teacher to let me read books I want to read, and she lets me go to the library. Basically, I like electronic books, but sometimes I like to get animal books, like about alligators and gorillas. I'm now reading the Book of World Records 2008. I learned that the starfish is the world's slowest fish."
I asked if he reads fiction.
"Yes. I like the Captain Underpants books."
Alex likes the Captain Underpants books because, among other things, they're witty and playful, and they create a credible universe filled with electronic gadgetry he can identify with.
Consider this passage from the novel Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People: "As you might remember from our last adventure, George and Harold had recently made the horrifying mistake of trying to pass through a synthetic time warp without letting the C-2X906 super-bimflimanatrix drive of their beebleflux-capacitating zoossifyer cool down, thus creating a sub-paradoxical, dimensionalistic alternicon-shift, which opened up a hyper-googliphonic screen door into a sub-omnivating ultra-zinticular bio-nanzonoflanamarzipan."
If Captain Underpants, Sir Fartsalot, Vlad the Impaler and other such books can entice boys to read and to love reading, we should be thankful. If nothing else, our boys will become more literate.