Smotherhood: Forget The Classics, My Son Only Wants To Read About Farting And Boogers

When I moved out of my childhood home at 18, my parents lovingly packed away my kids’ books, with a view to passing them on to their grandchildren some day. Six boxes were filled to the brim with well-thumbed paperbacks and beautifully illustrated hardcovers. All the classics were there: Arthur Ransome, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Dennis Lee; Amelia Bedelia, the original Little Bear, Little Grey Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh.

When I had my son in 2005, my newly retired parents moved themselves across the country and the boxes came with them, at no small expense. They were delighted (and relieved) to hand them over after having stored them for almost two decades.

I lovingly unpacked them onto my son’s bookshelves and eagerly awaited the day we would crack their spines and together rediscover the imaginary world I inhabited when I was little.

I’m still waiting.

Not because my son can’t read: At almost six, he’s crazy about books. In fact, just the other night I caught him sitting in his dimly lit bedroom hallway an hour after bedtime devouring the latest installment in the saga of Captain Underpants. I couldn’t get that angry it reminded me of how I used to read under my covers by flashlight, long after I was supposed to be in bed.

But I was reading Swallows and Amazons, the charming tales of a British family (one daughter’s name, Titty, was, for obvious reasons, changed to Kitty in subsequent TV adaptations) who have adventures on the high seas involving nothing more disturbing than ”pemmican” (corned beef, it turns out) and ”grog.”

My son is reading a book whose full title is Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy; Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets. The two main characters in the Underpants series, badly behaved boys George and Harold, draw comic strips featuring bodily functions that get them in trouble with their school principal. Between this series and his other favorite reading material ninja and superhero comics he’s essentially learning not just to crudely flout authority, but that it’s a legitimate main goal in life.

In fact, a glance at the titles of some recent bestsellers tells the story: The Day My Bum Went Psycho; The Gas We Pass; Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder; Mrs. Buttkiss and the Big Surprise; and, of course, Walter the Farting Dog, whose illustrations and storylines (in one, Dad decides to sell the family dog at a garage sale) are creepy enough to give any kid nightmares.

Okay, okay, I get it: farting is hilarious. Generations of comedians can’t be wrong. And I can see the attraction of these books for a five-year-old boy.

What I can’t understand is why, with bookshelves full of kinder, gentler, less disgusting options, my husband (or any parent) insists on buying them. He argues that anything that gets a kid reading is good, regardless of content, but our son would happily read a cereal box if we put it in front of him.

It would surely be better to cultivate a love of narratives that rely for their interest on imagination and narrative rather than non-stop action involving boogers and stink bombs; that teach kids when to question authority rather than preaching its arbitrary overthrow; that explore emotional territory beyond the cliched bully-versus-victim stereotype of most comic books.

One thing I know: When it comes time to pack up my kids’ books to pass on the next generation, Captain Underpants will not be among them.


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