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.
The book chronicles a 9-year-old boy's multimillion-dollar science fair invention of tablets that can change foul-smelling gas into the culprit's scent of choice: summer rose, cotton candy, grape -- even pickles, as requested by his little sister. It climbed to No. 3 on Amazon in children's humor in October on little more than word of mouth and prompted a sequel, "Sweet Farts: Rippin' It Old-School," to be released next month.
"Reaching those reluctant boys, it's a challenge I take very, very seriously, and this is what they think is funny," Mr. Sabini said. "There's also history in there. There's science in there, the problem of bullying, but it's the humor that gets their attention."
Jon Scieszka, a former teacher and Library of Congress ambassador for young people's literature, has been writing children's books for 20 years. He started Guysread.com to better connect boys with appealing text and begins his "Spaceheadz" series (Simon & Schuster) about TV-saturated aliens in September, complete with websites that offer more.
"We have to meet them where they are," he said. "We need to engage kids in this 21st-century world but it doesn't have to be either-or, the digital world or a book."
Mr. Scieszka is not convinced that educators know how to hook boys, especially when it comes to required reading.
"Boys will read a wide variety of stuff, not just gross-out humor, but stuff they enjoy in large part is stuff that's not seen as legitimate reading in some schools, so they're already feeling they're not part of the system."
Grossology shouldn't be underestimated in boyland. Scholastic's poop-fiction star, Dav Pilkey, and his "Captain Underpants" graphic series remains immensely popular among both sexes. Mr. Pilkey is bringing back his fourth-grade narrators minus their superhero on Aug. 10 in "The Adventures of Ook and Gluk," about two kung-fu-lovin' caveboys sucked into the future.
In Barrington, Ill., Jennifer Lucas said reading is tough for her 10-year-old son, Sean. She said teachers in the lower grades don't fully understand boy energy in the classroom.
"It's hard for first- and second-grade boys to sit still and learn things the way girls do, like through songs," she said. "I think they want so much out of boys when it comes to reading, and they're not ready."
Cathy Walker, who teaches fourth grade in Raleigh, N.C., is always looking for ways to engage hard-to-reach boys. She stumbled on Mr. Sabini's "Sweet Farts" on Amazon, read it for herself and knew it would be a hit all around.
"It's a topic most teachers and parents don't openly discuss," she said. "It's a great way for boys to engage in topics that are 'taboo' and, because of that, they enjoy them even more."
Best-selling author James Patterson knows from personal experience how hard it can be. His son Jack is a great reader now, at age 12, but that wasn't true when he was younger. "He wouldn't sit down with a book, beyond what he had to do in school."
Mr. Patterson hunted down quality reads for a user-friendly website, Readkiddoread.com, and began writing for young people, including the "Daniel X" alien hunter series that has a new installment out this month.
"I think it can turn around for a lot of kids. Parents have to take the responsibility seriously. Schools need to be more practical, meaning they need to understand that reading lists are tremendously important but you have to put books on it that the kids are going to respond to," he said. "Reading is such a necessary thing to take you through life."