The Gross and the Gory: Making a Reading Connection with Boys

Book Links May 2009 (vol. 18, no. 5)

By Rebecca A. Hill

Reach your reluctant readers with bodily functions and blood and guts.

Elementary school through middle school

Impaled heads. “Nasty toilet pee-pee sandwiches.” Maggots. Toe cheese. Gross? Yes. Gory? You bet. Welcome to gross and gory literature, publishing’s latest attempt to crack the boys’ reading market.

While Thomas Rockwell’s classic
How to Eat Fried Worms may have been the first inkling of the trend, Caldecott Honor Book illustrator Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series burst open the boys’ market with its wildly funny version of toilet humor. However, it was not until Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s 2002 book,
Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men (Heinemann), that the theory that boys read differently finally crystallized in the minds of educators. Boys like action and adventure. They like toilet humor. Now we are finding that they like the gross and the gory.

In a forthcoming study tentatively titled “Let Them Read Trash,” Wilhelm examines why boys and girls read books that are often undervalued in schools. Mostly, he says, boys are looking to be engaged in reading. They want to read fun books that they can talk about and share. Secondly, boys see books as a way to find their identity. Reading gross and gory books tends to make boys see themselves as edgy—someone who pushes the boundaries—or, in the case of toilet humor, funny. Violent books are also seen as a way to prepare oneself for violence in the real world. Boys see reading as an “imaginative rehearsal for living.” The problem with literature in school, Wilhelm says, is that boys end up merely guessing what the teacher wants them to find in the text rather than finding themselves and exploring real-world problems in their reading experience.

A longtime educator and author of
Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger (see below), Kevin Bolger watches what kids are reading—the books they bring to school and borrow from the library—and builds his own classroom library on these observations. “I don’t just ‘allow’ Captain Underpants books in my classroom,” Bolger says. “I base my teaching around them.” As a result, students in his classroom are begging to read.

Making the reading connection with boys in the classroom may require educators to move outside their comfort zone. The following bibliography offers a sample of current gross and gory literature to help them on the journey.

Individual Fiction Titles

Fartiste. By Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer. Illus. by Boris Kulikov. 2008. 40p. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781416928287).

K–Gr. 3. Joseph Pujol was a Frenchman who startled and entertained with his ability to pass gas. A visit to the Moulin Rouge turned him into one of the showplace’s greatest attractions. Kids who think regular old farting is funny will be delighted with Pujol’s ability to elevate the skill.

Is That a Dead Dog in Your Locker? By Todd Strasser. 2008. 192p. Scholastic, paper, $4.99 (9780439776943).
Gr. 4–7. The Tardy Boys have agreed to help their friend hide a dog at school, and although the dog, Wheezy, is small, he leaves a big stink wherever he goes. How can the Tardy Boys keep him a secret when Wheezy smells so bad? Also see the sequel,
Is That a Sick Cat in Your Backpack? (2008).

Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger. By Kevin Bolger. Illus. by Stephen Gilpin. 2008. 224p. Razorbill, $10.99 (9781595141767).

Gr. 2–4. In the Kingdom of Armpit, prank-playing Prince Harry convinces the knight Sir Fartsalot that the Snotty Scoundrel is once again at large. Sir Fartsalot embarks on a quest to save the kingdom from the most dastardly of boogers.

Stink and the World’s Worst Super-Stinky Sneakers. By Megan McDonald. Illus. by Peter H. Reynolds. 2007. 144p. Candlewick, $12.99 (9780763628345).

Gr. 2–4. From a trip to the science museum’s Gross-Me-Out exhibit to experiments with toilet water, this book rewards readers drawn by the word stink in the title. After working to create the vilest entry in a smelly sneaker contest, James “Stink” Moody (Judy Moody’s younger brother) proves his worth as a substitute judge in this installment from McDonald’s Stink chapter book series.

Stinky. By Eleanor Davis. 2008. 40p. TOON, $12.95 (9780979923845).

K–Gr. 2. When a boy ventures into a nearby swamp and builds a treehouse, the local swamp monster, Stinky, tries to scare him away, but nothing works. When the two finally meet and talk, each one realizes he needs a friend. This 2009 Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book features an appealing graphic-novel structure and a repetitive vocabulary that will have younger children quickly learning mucky, yucky, and gross.

Fiction Series

Butt Wars. By Andy Griffiths. Scholastic. Individual books, 240–304p., paper, $4.99–5.99. Select titles available as audio editions from Listening Library.

Gr. 2–5. In
The Day My Butt Went Psycho! (2003), Zack Freeman and his runaway butt make a journey across the Great Windy Desert, through the Brown Forest, and over the Sea of Butts to the most explosive buttcano of all time. There Zack kicks the biggest and ugliest butt of all. The series continues in
Zombie Butts from Uranus! (2004) and
ButtWars: The Final Conflict (2005).

Captain Underpants. By Dav Pilkey. Scholastic/Blue Sky. Individual books, 128–176p., $16.95–16.99; paper, $3.99–5.99. Also available in Spanish.

Gr. 2–5. George Beard and Harold Hutchins are two bored fourth-graders. They create the comic Captain Underpants, which transforms their school principal into a wedgie-powered superhero. This nine-book series includes
Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets (1999),
Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants (2000), and
The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby (2002).

Just Books. By Andy Griffiths. Illus. by Terry Denton. Scholastic. Individual books, 144p., paper, $5.99.

Gr. 4–7. From just annoying, stupid, wacky, and now disgusting, Griffiths’ series includes practical jokes and stories involving fake vomit, dog poop, and, of all things, bananas. Titles include
Just Annoying (2003),
Just Joking (2003), and
Just Disgusting (2005).

Rotten School. By R. L. Stine. Illus. by Trip Park. HarperCollins. Individual books, 128p., $6.99; paper, $4.99.

Gr. 3–5. Welcome to Rotten School, founded a century ago by I. B. Rotten. All of the students are considered rotten, but watch out for Bernie Bridges, the most rotten of them all. This 16-title series includes
The Big Blueberry Barf-Off! (2005),
The Great Smelling Bee (2005), and
Shake, Rattle, and Hurl! (2006).

Sardine in Outer Space. By Emmanuel Guibert. Illus. by Joann Sfar. Roaring Brook/First Second. Individual books, 112–128p., paper, $12.95–14.95.

Gr. 3–6. In this numbered graphic-novel series from France, tiny space-pirate Sardine cruises in her spaceship with Uncle Yellow Shoulder and friend Little Louie. The trio’s wacky adventures offer as much grisly monster-filleting action and bodily fluid humor as a young reader could want.

Walter the Farting Dog. By William Kotzwinkle and others. Illus. by Audrey Colman. Dutton. Individual books, 32p., $15.95; Puffin, paper, $6.99.

Gr. 1–3. In the first installment in the series,
Walter the Farting Dog (North Atlantic, 2001), wherever Walter goes, a stinky cloud is sure to follow. His family has had enough until two burglars break into their house. Walter farts and the burglars run away. Other volumes include
Walter the Farting Dog Goes on a Cruise (2006),
Walter the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Yard Sale (2006), and
Walter the Farting Dog: Banned from the Beach (2007).

Weenies Series. By David Lubar. Starscape. Individual Books, 192–208p., $15.95; paper, $5.99.

Gr. 4–8. Lubar explores the wacky, the warped, and the macabre in his outlandish short story collections, which include
In the Land of the Lawn Weenies (2003),
Invasion of the Road Weenies (2005),
The Curse of the Campfire Weenies (2007), and
The Battle of the Red Hot Pepper Weenies (2009).

Individual Nonfiction Titles

Are You Afraid Yet? The Science behind Scary Stuff. By Stephen James O’Meara. Illus. by Jeremy Kaposy. 2009. 80p. Kids Can, $17.95 (9781554532940).

Gr. 5–8. Author O’Meara, represented in the black-and-white comic-book-style artwork as a creepy narrator with a goatee and sharp teeth, uses classic horror tales to introduce scientific concepts. Jekyll and Hyde are linked to psychoactive drugs, vampirism is connected to the rare blood disease porphyria, werewolves are blamed on hypertrichosis, and so forth.

Gee Whiz! It’s All about Pee. By Susan Goodman. Illus. by Elwood Smith. 2006. 40p. Viking, $15.99 (9780670060641).

Gr. 2–5. Did you know that southern belles hoarded urine during the Civil War to make gunpowder? Today, scientists can use pee to identify individuals with more accuracy than fingerprints. A sequel to
The Truth about Poop (Viking, 2004), this book covers everything you wanted to know about urine and more.

It’s Disgusting and We Ate It! True Food Facts from around the World and throughout History. By James Solheim. Illus. by Eric Brace. 1998. 48p. Aladdin, paper, $7.99 (9780689843938).

Gr. 4–6. With basic facts and interesting trivia, this book explores the disgusting and unusual things that humans eat throughout the world and why. Brace’s zany illustrations add a blast of color to this picture book, which also features lists, a selection of recipes, and poems.

Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka. By Jon Scieszka. 2008. 96p. Viking, $16.99 (9780670011063); paper, $12.99 (9780670011384).

Gr. 3–6. In his autobiography, Scieszka, who grew up as the second of six sons, writes about baseball, fire, and peeing on stuff. The text is divided into two- to three-page chapters, with scrapbook snapshots and comic-book-ad reproductions. Vulgar fun for browsers and perfect for a biography report.

Oh, Yikes! History’s Grossest Moments. By Joy Masoff. Illus. by Terry Sirrell. 2006. 308p. Workman, paper, $14.95 (9780761136842).

Gr. 4–8. A sequel to Masoff’s
Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty (Workman, 2000), this book reveals history’s grossest moments, from guillotines to vomitoriums to plagues. Covering people, events, institutions, and really bad ideas, the encyclopedia uses hundreds of illustrations and colorful photographs with hands-on activities to show that history is full of really disgusting events.

Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable. By Nicola Davies. Illus. by Neal Layton. 2007. 64p. Candlewick, $5.99 (9780763635442).

Gr. 3–5. This mini edition of Davies’ text includes every “unmentionable” aspect of poop, including what humans and animals do with it and how it is produced. Ink-and-watercolor cartoons add a humorous tone to the book, illustrating such things as why sheep release hard, dry pellets while cows, well, . . . don’t.

The Story behind Toilets. By Elizabeth Raum. June 2009. 32p. Heinemann, lib. ed., $19.75 (9781432923501).

Gr. 2–4. This entry in the True Stories series covers virtually everything related to toilets, from bodily functions to the technology of the toilets of tomorrow. The chapter “A Short History of Toilets” includes a running time line of toilet innovations, a photograph of an ancient 12-man Tunisian toilet, and period sketches of waste being thrown from village windows.

What’s Eating You? Parasites—The Inside Story. By Nicola Davies. Illus. by Neal Layton. 2007. 64p. Candlewick, $12.99 (9780763634605).

Gr. 3–6. Parasites are everywhere, from a humpback whale’s head to the brain of a bee to your own body. This is an in-depth look by a team of scientists at the tiniest of creatures and the ways they can hinder and sometimes help their hosts.

Would You Rather . . . ? Gross-Out: Over 300 Disgusting Dilemmas plus Extra Pages to Make up Your Own! By Justin Heimberg and David Gomberg. 2008. 224p. Falls Media, paper, $9.95 (9781934734117).

Gr. 3–6. This Would You Rather . . . ? series title is a collection of revolting quandaries (“Would you rather eat bird beak “potato chips” or petrified snake “pretzels”?) that can be read alone or shared and discussed. Students can debate and vote for their choices, and fill-in-the-blank options allow them to dream up creative questions of their own.

Nonfiction Series

24/7 Science behind the Scenes: Forensic Files. Franklin Watts. Individual books, 64p., $26.

Gr. 6–9. This series explores how forensic experts solve crimes, and includes such titles as
Gut-Eating Bugs: Maggots Reveal the Time of Death! by Danielle Denega (2007) and
Killer Wallpaper: True Cases of Deadly Poisonings by Anna Pro-kos (2007). Books in this 12-title series foster scientific inquiry and knowledge through concise text, glossy photos, charts, time lines, briefing notes, and real-life case files. Also see the 24/7 Science behind the Scenes: Medical Files series.

Grossology. By Sylvia Branzei. Illus. by Jack Keely. Price Stern Sloan. Individual books, 80p., paper, $6.99–9.99.

Gr. 3–6. Branzei’s series titles
Grossology: The Science of Really Gross Things! (2002),
Grossology and You (2002), and
Animal Grossology (2004) explore all things gross, from facts about the human body to the revolting creatures of the animal kingdom, while
Hands-on Grossology (2003) is a book of disgusting science experiments. The series has also inspired a CD-ROM and a children’s television series.

Gross-out Defenses. Bearport. Individual books, 24p., $21.28.

K–Gr. 3. With lots of full-color photos of creatures in action, this six-book series on animals’ defensive strategies includes titles on the horned lizard, which can squirt blood from its eyes, and the hagfish, which emits slime to escape from its enemies. Each title includes a map showing the habitat area of the species.

Sanitation Investigation. 2009. Capstone. Individual books, 32p., $17.99.

Gr. 3–7. Ever wonder what happens after you flush the toilet? Or what happens to the trash once the garbage collectors pick it up? This four-book series featuring full-color photos and diagrams explores our complex sanitation system in all its grossness. Titles include
Do You Know Where Your Water Has Been? The Disgusting Story behind What You’re Drinking by Kelly Regan Barnhill and
Getting to Know Your Toilet: The Disgusting Story behind Your Home’s Strangest Feature by Connie Colwell Miller.

That’s Disgusting. By Connie Colwell Miller. 2007. Capstone. Individual books, 32p., $16.99. Also available as interac-tive CDs.

Gr. 3–7. Miller’s
Disgusting Animals, Disgusting Bugs, Disgusting Foods, Disgusting Jobs, Disgusting Places, and
Disgusting Plants explore nasty animal smells, the small bugs that grow in your bed and on your head, as well as some of the most disgusting foods, places, plants, and jobs in the world.

That’s Gross! A Look at Science. ABDO. Individual books, 32p., $25.65.

Gr. 2–5. This six-book series shows how gross things thrive in a variety of ordinary settings. Subjects covered include the human body (where germs lurk) and the backyard (home of worms and other creepy crawlies). Each title features captioned full-color photos, fact boxes, and pronunciation of selected vocabulary.

Wicked History. Franklin Watts. Individual books, 128p., $30; paper, $5.95. Paperback editions available September 2009.

Gr. 6–9. This series exposes history’s most notorious villains and their heinous acts, and includes the titles
Vlad the Impaler: The Real Count Dracula by Enid A. Goldberg and Norman Itzkowitz (2007),
Mary Tudor: Courageous Queen or Bloody Mary? by Jane Buchanan (2008), and
Attila the Hun: Leader of the Barbarian Hordes by Sean Stewart Price (2009). This 16-title biography series directly correlates to social studies standards for middle and high school and features maps, etchings, photos, and primary-source documents.

Rebecca A. Hill is a librarian and freelance writer in Zionsville, Indiana.