By Leanne Italie Associated Press
Can fart jokes save the reading souls of boys?
You better hope so.
Boys have lagged behind girls in reading achievement for more than 20 years, but the gender gap now exists in nearly every state and has widened to mammoth proportions, as much as 10 percentage points in some, according to the Center on Education Policy.
“It certainly should set off alarm bells,” said the center’s director, Jack Jennings. “It’s a significant separation.”
Parents of reluctant readers complain that boys are forced to stick to stuffy required school lists that exclude nonfiction or silly subjects, or have teachers who cater to higher achievers and girls. They’re hoping books that exploit boys’ love of bodily functions and gross-out humor can close the gap.
“It’s like pulling out fingernails. He absolutely does not want to read,” said Muscle Shoals, Ala., dad Todd Thompson of his 13-year-old, Hunter. “I read constantly growing up. So did his mother. So does his 8-year-old sister, but he’s a go-go kid. To him, books are a waste of time.”
They’ve tried bribing him with new video games. Nope. While they’ve never considered doling out cash for reading, other parents unabashedly do.
“Some books can be pretty boring, and I just don’t feel like reading them,” said Hunter, a good student who reads what he has to for school. “I think a lot of boys feel like that.”
The angst among parents, teachers and librarians has been met by a steady stream of sports and historical nonfiction, potty humor, bloodthirsty vampires and action-packed graphic novels, fantasy and sleuthing.
Butts, farts. Whatever, said Amelia Yunker, a children’s librarian in Farmington Hills, Mich. She hosted a grossology party with slime and an armpit noise demo. “Just get ‘em reading. Worry about what they’re reading later.”
Adding online tie-ins or packaged prizes like the steady-selling “39 Clues” series has publishers meeting young readers halfway.
Patrick Carman has gone a step further with his wicked creepy “Skeleton Creek” series from Scholastic. The upper-grade books use password-protected websites to alternate book text and quick fixes of shaky, hand-held video. To follow the story, reading and watching online are both required.
Farts are Ray Sabini’s halfway point for younger kids. The fourth-grade teacher from Miller Place, outside New York, heard from dozens of grateful parents, teachers and librarians after he self-published his “SweetFarts” in 2008 under the name Raymond Bean.
The book chronicles a 9-year-old boy’s multimillion-dollar science fair invention of tablets that can change foul-smelling gas into the culprit’s scent of choice: summer rose, cotton candy, grape, even pickles, as requested by his little sister. “Sweet Farts: Rippin’ it Old-School” will be released next month.
“Reaching those reluctant boys, it’s a challenge I take very, very seriously and this is what they think is funny,” Sabini said. There’s also history in there. There’s science in there, the problem of bullying, but it’s the humor that gets their attention.”
Jon Scieszka, a former teacher and Library of Congress literary ambassador for young people’s lit, has been writing kid books for 20 years. He started Guyreads.com to better connect boys with appealing text and begins his “Spaceheadz” series about TV-saturated aliens in September, complete with websites that offer more.
Scieszka’s not convinced educators know how to hook boys, especially when it comes to required reading.
“Boys will read a wide variety of stuff, not just gross-out humor, but stuff they enjoy in large part is stuff that’s not seen as legitimate reading in some schools, so they’re already feeling they’re not part of the system.”
Grossology shouldn’t be underestimated in boyland. Scholastic’s poop fiction star, Dav Pilkey, and his “Captain Underpants” graphic series remains immensely popular among both genders.
Pilkey is bringing back his fourth-grade narrators minus their superhero Aug. 10 in “The Adventures of Ook and Gluk,” two kung-fu lovin’ caveboys sucked into the future.
Best-selling author James Patterson knows from personal experience how hard it can be. Son Jack is a great reader now, at age 12, but that wasn’t true when he was younger. “He wouldn’t sit down with a book, beyond what he had to do in school.”
Patterson hunted down quality reads for a user-friendly website, Readkiddoread.com, and began writing for young people, including the “Daniel X” alien hunter series that has a new installment out this month.