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Education Reporter

Gross, Grosser & Grossest: 
How far has children's literature sunk?
By Orlean Koehle

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A few years ago, I was substitute teaching in the first grade for a school in Santa Rosa, CA. In the classroom library, I found a shocking illustrated book for the students' silent reading periods. It was entitled All About Farts and showed various animals and the "farts" that they produce. It ended with a page about human farts, illustrated by a little boy and a grown man naked together in a hot tub with bubbles from their bottoms coming up to the surface. I thought at the time how gross this book was. Who in their right mind would want a child to read such a book? What redeeming value could it possibly have? What can a child learn from such a book?

Last week I found a book that was even worse. I was teaching the fourth grade in a school in Healdsburg, CA. The teacher's lesson plan called for me to read to the students after lunch. The book she left for me was called The Day My Butt Went Psycho, by a supposedly best selling Australian author named Andy Griffiths. The front cover further describes the story as "The epic tale of one brave boy and his crazy, runaway butt." It was published in 2001 by Scholastic, the same company that publishes the Harry Potter books, and many other books teachers use in the classroom.

I previewed the book during the morning recess and determined that it is exactly as the author describes on the back cover. He gives it a G rating for "gross -- contains immature material not suited for adults." In the foreword, he states that the book is suitable only for readers 18 and younger and that adults may be offended by it. Does he mean that only children's minds are to be corrupted by gross things, and adults are to not be concerned about it?

The story is about a little boy who awakens during the night to find that his "bottom" - as a child I was taught that the word "butt" was as bad as any other four-letter swear word, so from now on I will use the word bottom — has gone off to join a rebellious group of other bottoms that "moon" people from the side of the road and create disturbances.

The boy has to wear an artificial bottom on his quest to get his real one back. His cat goes with him. He finds his bottom, but as he tries to grab it, the bottom shoots a "fart" out on the cat and nearly kills it and then runs away again. The boy then has one adventure after another chasing his runaway bottom.

To quote the book's summary posted on Andy Griffiths' web site, the boy crosses the "Great Windy Desert, through the Brown Forest, and over the Sea of Bums before descending into the heart of an explosive bumcano to confront the biggest, ugliest and meanest bum of all." I skipped to the last chapter where he finally gets his repentant bottom back and throws away the artificial one.

This book even has a glossary of terms at the end with descriptive words and definitions including: "Fart - a small explosion between the legs"; "Great Windy Desert" - the place where old farts blow themselves out and form enormous stink tornadoes"; "Laxative Launcher - a butt gun that fires laxatives, used for neutralizing enemy fire by causing butts to lose control."

After my preview I decided that the entire book was gross, and that I would refuse to read it aloud to the class. I told the children why, noting that if their parents knew such an offensive book was being read aloud in class, they probably would not like it either. A boy raised his hand and said, "But it was the mother of a boy in class who brought the book in and recommended it to the teacher as a very funny book."

That really shocked me! I thought to myself, "What kind of parent would think this is an appropriate book to read to school children?" I explained that there is a difference between clean humor and dirty humor. "The humor in this book is equivalent to 'toilet talk,' the kind of language five-year olds use to get attention," I said. "You students are in the 4th grade. You're supposed to be older and wiser than five-year olds. Good humor is uplifting and makes you feel good inside, not embarrassed. Literature should have redeeming value or it is a waste of time."

I also pointed out that most children are surrounded by so much fantasy in books, television, and movies that it is good to occasionally read and learn about reality. I explained that this was why I had chosen to read about the lives of real American heroes and how they overcame tremendous odds.

I let the students choose between a book about Theodore Roosevelt, who overcame a weak, sickly body to become President of the United States, and a book about Helen Keller, who suffered an illness when she was two years old that left her blind and deaf, yet she went on to make great accomplishments. I explained that in spite of her handicap, Helen Keller became the first deaf and blind person to attend college. She was admitted to Radcliffe, the most prestigious women's college of her day and the equivalent of Harvard University, and graduated "cum laude" (with honors).

The majority of the class wanted to hear about Helen Keller, so that is what I read. Most of the students listened attentively, especially the girls, who empathized with Helen's sad, difficult life until she finally learned to communicate. I read excerpts from the book in order to tell the whole story.

While I was reading, one of the boys started a petition demanding that the next substitute teacher read what he referred to as "the Butt Book." I left the petition on the teacher's desk. A number of students who had signed it later scratched their names off the list.

Since that day I have done more research on the author, Andy Griffiths. He won several Australian Literature awards for his "Just" Series of children books: Just Annoying ("See what it takes to be the most annoying kid in the world"); Just Stupid; Just Crazy; and Just Kidding ("Kidding and practical jokes to the extreme"). He is working on his fifth "Just" Book - Just Disgusting!

Obviously, the judges giving out these awards choose books that have shock value rather than any redeeming qualities or real literary value. Griffiths has also recently finished a stage version of The Day My Butt Went Psycho. Won't it be delightful to see all sorts of little bare bottoms displayed on the stage!

Here are some comments that critics have made about Griffith's books:

  • "Andy Griffiths' books are wilder, crazier, grosser, and better than ever." "Children aren't going to learn much of any benefit from this book - in fact they may pick up a few tricks you wish they never had"; Marie Low, The Cairns Post.

  • "Deliciously vile writing, speaking to the puerile inner child in all of us." Sydney Morning Herald;

  • "The cheeky tale, which lives up to its bizarre title, is indicative of Andy Griffiths' gleefully absurd humor" . . . The Daily Telegraph.

Griffith's books are reputed to be gross, coarse, wild, crazy, vile, silly, absurd, childish, cheeky, and admittedly have no benefit other than to teach students tricks their parents would not want them to learn. Why are they being read to students in the classroom? Children tend to imitate what they see and hear. The more gross the material, the longer and more vividly it is retained in their memory banks. Are these the kinds of images and ideas a teacher would want her students to remember and emulate?

I am also concerned and offended by Griffiths' books because I believe they are directly opposed to what teachers are supposed to be teaching in the classroom - morality, manners, decency, and dignity. California Education Code 233.5a states: "Each teacher shall endeavor to impress upon the minds of the pupils the principles of morality, truth, justice, patriotism, and a true comprehension of the rights, duties, and dignity of American citizenship .. . to teach them to avoid idleness, profanity, and falsehood, and to instruct them in manners and morals .. ."

Griffiths' books teach just the opposite. Many of the words in his books would be classified as profanity. I urge all teachers with any sense of dignity and propriety to try to elevate your students not degrade them. If the "Butt Book" or similar books appears in your classroom, give them back or throw them away.

Orlean Koehle is president of California Eagle Forum.

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