- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Can flatulence jokes save the reading souls of boys?

You’d better hope so.

Boys have lagged behind girls in reading achievement for more than 20 years, but the sex 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,” Todd Thompson of Muscle Shoals, Ala., said about his 13-year-old son, 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.”

Growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., Mr. Thompson loved two things: football and books. His mother encouraged regular trips to the library. His father inspired him to dig into the Chip Hilton sports novels written by legendary basketball coach Clair Bee.

Mr. Thompson, 47, and his wife did the same with their reading-allergic son. No-go. They’ve tried bribing him with new video games. Nope. Although they’ve never considered doling out cash for reading, other parents do so unabashedly.

“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.

Whatever, said Amelia Yunker, a children’s librarian in Farmington Hills, Mich. She hosted a grossology party with slime and an armpit noise demonstration. “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.

“We’re meeting them halfway,” Mr. Carman said. “It’s the idea that these books understand where they’re at.”

Body gas is Ray Sabini’s halfway point for younger children. The fourth-grade teacher from Miller Place, outside New York City, heard from dozens of grateful parents, teachers and librarians after he self-published his “Sweet Farts” in 2008 under the name Raymond Bean.

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