Devotees of Walter the Farting Dog, a broad fan base ranging from the current White House Chief of Staff (who is said to keep a copy in his office) to my three little boys, will be relieved to learn their favorite pooch still hasn’t run out of gas. Though the fifth volume, Banned from the Beach (by William Kotzwinkle, Glenn Murray, and Elizabeth Gundy and illustrated by Audre Colman, Dutton) relies on the very same joke employed by the previous four, canine flatus, like first love, may be a theme that never loses its punch or pungency. In this volume, Walter reaches new heights of virtuosic gassiness, farting at turns “sadly,” “guiltily,” and even “philosophically.” With one especially rancid explosion, brought on by digesting “a tropical fruit that should have been thoroughly cooked,” Walter manages to part the sea, shake coconuts from trees, and find buried treasure.
“Charlotte’s Web” it ain’t, and yet, as my own family focus group continues to make clear, bodily functions are endlessly fascinating and often laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, Walter’s explosive rise up the bestseller lists may be credited (or blamed) for a new wave of children’s books that share that series’ refreshing frankness and matter-of-factness about the strange, appalling, and yes, even heroic things our bodies can do.
Walter’s explosive rise up the bestseller lists may be credited (or blamed) for a new wave of children’s books that share that series’ refreshing frankness and matter-of-factness about the strange, appalling, and yes, even heroic things our bodies can do.
Consider Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Neal Layton (Candlewick Press) a tidily-packaged volume, no bigger than a cow pie, that lives up to its attention-grabbing title and chapter headings. For instance, “Sloppy or Ploppy?” explores how the water content in different animals’ feces accounts for the varieties in shape and consistency of scat. Elsewhere, we learn how scientists pick apart poop in the laboratory to learn how animals live in the wild, and why some predators will eat the droppings of their prey to smell more like the animals they plan to attack. (This evolutionary hold-over explains why some dogs eat their own poop—and could serve as an interesting plot device for a future Walter the Farting Dog book.)
Flush! The Scoop on Poop Throughout the Ages (Little, Brown) covers some of the same gastrointestinal terrain, but from a more anthropological angle, using rhyming verse and historical insight to rise above mere bathroom humor. A section on Roman bathroom habits explains that a stick and sponge kept in a communal bucket of sloppy water once did the job we now assign to Charmin. Another recounts the English court’s less than enthusiastic reception for Sir John Harrington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I, credited with inventing the world’s first mechanical flushing toilet back in 1596. (Who knew?) Author and illustrator Charise Mericle Harper waits until the last page to bring the word “poop” into the rhyme scheme, a show of self -restraint that nearly matches that of Mij Kelly in Have You Seen My Potty? Barron’s) For pages and pages of this rhyming picture book (sweetly illustrated by Mary McQuillan), poor Suzy Sue must fight the call of nature while asking the farm animals around her if they’ve seen her missing red potty chair. Though we are reminded with increasing urgency that Suzy Sue has “something very important to do,” the author never stoops to alternating this with the perhaps too-obvious Number Two. This is an unfortunate oversight, says my five-year-old, who thinks the story would have been more dramatic if Suzy’s problem had been stated more clearly.
(In the pre-K Potty-Theme Genre, he and his younger brothers much preferred Aliens Love Underpants by Claire Freeman and Ben Cort (Barron’s), a science fiction fantasy which proposes that aliens visit earth to pluck underwear from clotheslines, and Pirates Don’t Change Diapers, Melinda Long’s sequel to How I Became A Pirate, in which Braid Beard and his motley crew –hilariously illustrated by David Shannon–are forced to babysit for Jeremy Jacob’s little sister and change nappies with the extra burden of hooks instead of hands. Arrrgh, indeed.)
Moving a little higher up the digestive tract, there’s The Gulps, a picture book by Rosemary Wells and Marc Brown (of Max and Ruby, and Arthur fame, respectively) about a super-size family that can hardly make it down the driveway without stopping at the drive-thru.
Moving a little higher up the digestive tract, there’s The Gulps, a picture book by Rosemary Wells and Marc Brown (of Max and Ruby, and Arthur fame, respectively) about a super-size family that can hardly make it down the driveway without stopping at the drive-thru. When their extra wide loads are too much for their vacation RV to haul, they’re forced to make friends with the Spratts, a lean and green farm family who teach them how to pull weeds, peel carrots, and lighten their load. While the benefits of a high-fiber diet are only hinted at by the Gulps, they are illustrated in glorious and graphic detail in Chewy, Gooey, Rumble, Plop!: A deliciously disgusting plop-up guide to the digestive system, by Steve Alton, illustrated by Nick Sharratt (Dial Books for Young Readers). The book starts with the notion that humans are essentially hollow—“just a tube, with a hole at each end”—and follows the passage of a bite of apple from one end of the tube to the other, through a cheerful and inventive series of “plop-up” illustrations (the complicated path from the small to the large intestine is particularly well-mapped), culminating in a climactic bathroom scene rarely depicted in pop-up form. We learned many interesting things from this book (fun fact: humans swallow 13,000 gallons of spit in a lifetime), the most important being that you should be sure to keep the plastic shield that covers the eerily life-like rubber tongue that sticks out of the book’s front cover. Without it, the tongue gets stuck to things—Legos, dog hair, and squealing, freaked-out parents.
Of course, the gross-out factor is a big part of the appeal of body-function books, and one title that really delivers is Ouch!: How Your Body Makes It Through A Very Bad Day by Richard Walker (DK). Using computer-generated and frequently gory close-up images, Ouch! reveals how the human body respondsto a host of assaults, from a bee sting, to an insect in the ear canal, to a bleeding cut. The accompanying CD allows you to watch in 3-D animation as the contents of an upset stomach come hurtling out the upper end as vomit (“Cool!” pronounced my almost 4-year-old), but does not include one of the highlights of the book, the pus-filled explosion of a pimple—an oversight one assumes the publisher will fix before the second edition. Any one of the slings and arrows outlined in Ouch! would make a book of its own, a notion amazingly well illustrated in Sneeze! by Alexandra Siy and Dennis Kunkel (Charlesbridge) which uses beautiful and horrifying colorized electron micrographs of pollen grains, dust mites, and mildew to show how these irritants can trigger an involuntary reflex second only to farting when it comes to entertaining the elementary school crowd.
But what about those more embarrassing body functions older kids have to cope with? They might find comfort and answers to their commonly asked questions in Changing You! A Guide to Body Changes and Sexuality by Dr. Gail Saltz and illustrated by Lynne Avril Cravath (Dutton), which assures young readers that pubic hair and breasts that grow a little faster on one side than the other are “all very new’’ and “all very normal.’’ Boys with more pressing questions may prefer The Boy’s Body Book: Everything You Need to Know for Growing up YOU by Kelli Dunham (Applesauce Press) which covers much less amusing bodily functions (at least, when it’s happening to you), such as bed-wetting, voice-cracking, and wet dreams. It’s worth noting that both of these books do mention the word “scrotum,” a word that caused quite a stir when it appeared on the first page of last year’s Newbury Medal winner. Fans of Walter the Farting Dog and others on this list may be disappointed to learn the word is used entirely in context, and not for its comic potential.
This review appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune 9/24/07