Scholastic Australia
Family Matters

Don't pooh-pooh toilet humour

Sharon Millyard and Angie Masters

Does your child enjoy reading books about bums, farts and other bodily functions? Do you wonder, or worry, if you should let them read these types of books?

Does your child enjoy reading books about bums, farts and other bodily functions? Do you wonder, or worry, if you should let them read these types of books?

While controversy rages on toilet humour content in children's books, sales of books by Andy Griffiths and other writers of the 'poo-bum' genre continue to soar.

What is it about the nether regions that fascinates kids? And is it in society's best interests to encourage this fascination to the extent of letting it infiltrate children's reading material?

Most educators and parents are aware of how important it is that children be able to read; how it can transform lives and build confident, creative and articulate adults. Where opinions differ is in the lengths to which we should go to encourage children to read.

Some take the hard line, that some material simply should not be published. Others believe that it's up to the adults in a child's life to censor that child's reading material.

Many feel that any book (or magazine or comic) that grabs a child's interest enough to have them read it from start to finish is a worthy text. The very book denied a child might be the book that would have made the difference in capturing and holding the child's interest and leading them on to further, more advanced and more mature reading.

How far is too far?
Perhaps we're just looking at generational changes here. Roald Dahl shocked audiences with characters that took 'disgusting' to the absolute limits of his day, but today he's recognised as an icon of children's literature.

Today's authors continue to push the boundaries. Paul Jennings is seen as a modern-day pioneer in captivating reluctant readers, but has had to deflect criticism for being 'childish'. His defence is simple: he targets children who hate reading by keeping his books fun. In The Reading Bug he states that with these kids, 'It is time to bring out the big guns. And take a dive into the culture of childhood.' He then offers a list of recommended books for 'hard-core book-haters', a list that includes Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman, Just Disgusting by Andy Griffiths, Tim Winton's The Bugalugs Bum Thief, to name but a few. It's a list that probably horrifies most adults, but it achieves its purpose-it gets children to read!

In Books in the Life of a Child, Maurice Saxby says, '. . . the success of these authors is that they seem to know instinctively-and by keeping their ear to the ground-what makes children laugh at various stages of their life.' He also states, '. . . children want humour; they love books which they label "funny".' Note the use of they-books which they label funny-not we. Their style of humour is often very different to that of an adult. (Although Saxby also notes that 'lavatory humour often persists throughout life'. How many adult comedy shows can resist sketches that contain farting?)

Saxby pays tribute to the therapeutic effect of humour when he discusses Tim Winton's The Bugalugs Bum Thief, saying '[it] . . . sends young readers into roars of laughter and acts as a cleansing tonic.' He goes on to say, 'Winton combines slapstick humour, physical clowning and accidents as the result of clumsiness or gross physical misfortune (all part of the appeal at this level) with taboo.' The taboo (bums) is not the only appeal for children-there's much more to the book than this. In Andy Griffiths' The Day My Bum Went Psycho and Zombie Bums from Uranus, the toilet humour is rampant, but the stories on offer also combine fantasy-set on Earth but in a type of alternative 'univarse'-with action and adventure, a classic tale of heroes and villains with the protagonist (and his bum) sporting a Harry Potter-style destiny to save the world.

On a serious note
Of course, the serious side of the argument will not just go away. In allowing children such a controversial choice of reading material, there's an underlying hope—the hope that they will progress to more mature reading! We believe, for example, that kids who read Andy Griffiths' Just . . . books move on to his novels. But do they then move on to other authors? Do they actually become readers or do they just become disgruntled when the toilet-humour books run out, and rush straight back to their video and computer games?

The Reading Bug, Paul Jennings, Penguin Books, Australia, 2003
Books in the Life of a Child, Henry Maurice Saxby, Macmillan Education, Australia, 1997
'Rude, Crude and Totally Desirable: Bum Books Rule', Sharon Verghis, The Sydney Morning Herald, September 14, 2002
About Paul Jennings, Terry Lane,
Review: The Day My Bum Went Psycho, Publishers' Weekly, March 2003

Classroom Parent Magazine Issue 2 / 2004

© Scholastic Australia 2004