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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

That's Disgusting! Can You Read It Again?

The inspiration for this post is Artie Bennett's new picture book, The Butt Book. It's a funny and informative look at one of our least celebrated body parts (read more about it below). But its very subject matter may be a turn-off to some who might ask, "Why share a picture book about the human bottom?"

As parents, teachers, librarians, and tutors, we know that finding the right book is the key to motivating a child to read. And sometimes, for certain kids, that means a book that is naughty or creepy or sometimes downright gross! So check out my suggestions below, and then keep on reading for extensions and recommended sites to take full advantage of what these books have to offer.

The dilemma of  just right books is central to the plot of Miss Brooks Loves Books by Barbara Bottner. Miss Brooks, a lover of books, is a librarian who always goes the extra mile, dressing as an elephant to read Babar, a monster to read Where the Wild Things are, and a jack-o-lantern to share Halloween books.

But our diminutive, contrary protagonist is unimpressed. Neither these antics, nor her peers' animated theatrics during Book Week, move Missy to read a book. Books that other children find fascinating are too flowery (fairies), too furry (dogs), too clickety (trains), or too yippity (cowboys) for Missy.

Mother tries to help as well, sharing books that Miss Brooks recommends, but even she reaches wit's end. Mother declares, "You're as stubborn as a wart."

Missy jolts to life. Warts? "I want to read a story with warts!" exclaims Missy. The natural choice for a book? Shrek, of course! Missy loves that Shrek has warts and hairs on his nose, and that he snorts! Miss Brooks is glad that her most reluctant reader has finally discovered a book she loves, and she promises Missy that she's still destined to find many more books that are "funny and fantastic and appalling."

The Butt Book is certainly funny and fantastic, and features a not-at-all-naughty and surprisingly academic tribute to our often overlooked posterior. Its clever rhymes and Mike Lester's bold and beautiful images make it an instant hit!

I happened to preview some of the pages online while sitting in a meeting at school. Another teacher, reading over my shoulder, burst into laughter. "What book is that?" she asked. "It looks hilarious!"

And it is! Its euphemisms, histories, and practical purposes make it a very serious study of human anatomy, and beyond its value as a read-aloud (plan to read it again and again!), I think it has the possibility to spark some interesting extensions in reading, writing, and science.

But, Keith, c'mon! What about its subject matter? What about the very topic of this book?

To respond, let me share a portion of a review by Thurston Dooley III in The Brooklyn Paper:

No doubt, there are parents who will worry that Bennett's endless repetition of the word "butt" in all its myriad forms - tuchas, fanny, bottom, heinie, rear - will encourage the youngsters to scream out "butt cheeks!" at inappropriate moments...

In actuality, The Butt Book will actually help remove the word's lingering shock value. For starters, Bennett plays it all for laughs, suggesting that we, not our keisters, are the ones with the butt problem because we are the ones who have "neglected" the butt.
"Funny and fantastic and appalling" also comes to mind for readers of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Gross Junior Edition. This handy guidebook, perfect for independent readers in grades three and up, features such entries as How to Cope with Nightmare Boogers, How to Tame a Beastly Burp, How to Tell if There's a Mouse in Your House, How to Prevent Pinkeye, and How to Survive a Skunk Encounter. And as they say on television, "But wait! There's more!" The edition concludes with Grossest Human Habits in History and Gross Practical Jokes.

I love that this book doesn't shy away from the gross topics, and actually addresses real-life problems that kids might encounter. But it does it in a fun way, employing nonfiction conventions such as headings, bullets, diagrams, charts, tables, and captions. If we had textbooks this engaging, we'd have a lot more straight A students!

Extension Activities

The Butt Book

I honestly love The Butt Book as a simple read-aloud. It's one of those read-alouds that is its own reward, and it's a book that kids will eagerly read on their own again and again. But if you're looking some extension activities, try these:

  • Encourage students to work in small groups to write their own books celebrating other body parts (I highly recommend you choose the parts). There are several things to consider, including content, rhyme, and illustrations. You might choose to use Bennett's book as a model for structuring the original projects, noting with students that Bennett includes synonyms, histories, and practical purposes for the butt. If students are stymied for ideas to get started, have them use one of the resources below.
  • Have students visit Wordsmyth, a handy dictionary and thesaurus, to look up a given body part to learn more about its use in American idioms. The entry word ear, for example, produced not only definitions, but also ear to the ground, play it by ear, wet behind the ears, and dog ear. Students can use these expressions to create a poster, mini-book, or digital application (such as Power Point or Photo Story).
  • Another terrific way to learn about the use of body names in expressions is to search them using One Look. One Look is a neat dictionary that allows you to search for words and expressions that begin or end with a word. So when I entered the search term * ear, over a hundred results were returned, including bend someone's ear, easy on the ear, can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, cute as a bug's ear, music to my ear, swimmer's ear, and the War of Jenkin's Ear (yes, it involved an actual severed ear). For lower grades, the teacher might pick and choose expressions for student research; in sixth grade I'd send students there to look for themselves.
  • Famous Quotes and other quotation sites are excellent resources for illustrations incorporating body parts. Students can include these in any of the above projects, or respond to them in writing prompts.
  • Animal anatomy adapts itself to its environment. Rather than focusing on human anatomy, assign students to research animal anatomy and adaptations. Web sites like ESkeleton even let students compare similarities in anatomy of like species. Using a short, online game is a good way to get students thinking about unique bodily adaptations that help animals survive.
Miss Brooks Loves Books

Miss Brooks Loves Books is full of creative ideas for extension:

  • Celebrate themed days and weeks, and encourage student participation through costumes, stuffed animals, and related items. I once read aloud at a Barnes and Noble, and encouraged all students attending to bring their teddy bears. They didn't know why, but they all did, and it made the audience-participation version of Going on a Bear Hunt a big hit!
  • Host a Book Week. While Missy describes it as "truly terrifying," your students could find it amazingly awesome! Michael Emberly's illustrations should provide some ideas.
  • Share more books about reluctant readers. Check out the list featured at Reading Rockets. Many students are comforted to know that they're not alone in their struggles with reading; these stories will inspire them to continue trying.
The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Gross Junior Edition

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Gross Junior Edition encourages students to explore the gooey and gross, the smelly and slimy. Encourage student curiosity with these activities:

  • Assign students a question about human health. Encourage research by providing resources such as KidsHealth. KidsHealth is a highly respected, reliable source for health information, and it features a kids section filled with videos, interactives, and Q&As all designed to answer students' most pressing health questions. KidzWorld is another student-friendly site featuring short articles on vomit and other gross yet necessary bodily functions, plus disgusting animal defenses.
  • Encourage students to create their own entry for this Handbook. It is, after all, a handbook for surviving life's unexpected "nasties," so students might have their own topics to explore and expound upon. Some of the topics covered in the two sites above, or in sites that follow, may give students inspiration. Require also that they incorporate the same conventions found in The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, including titles, headings, bulleted or numbered lists, tables, diagrams, labels, illustrations, and text boxes.
  • Explore the wonderful branch of science known as Scatology, or the study of feces. Seriously! Who Pooped is an amazing site which not only lets students solve the mystery of which animal pooped, but also describes (through a video segment) how zoologists use observations of feces to determine an animal's health. Students can even print out a certificate upon completion of the site's tasks.
  • Into animal studies but want to steer clear of poop? The KidWings website allows students to virtually dissect owl pellets, the undigested masses of fur and bone regurgitated by these raptors. The latest version of this site makes pulling apart and sorting the pellet simple and educational. Interactive instructional pieces plus many teacher resources make this site an instant winner, high on the "cool" scale, low on the actual "gross" scale.
Additional Resources

Be sure to visit The Yuckiest Site on the Internet for both teacher and student oriented explorations into the gross, and check out Scholastic's recommendations for Icky, Creepy, and Just Plain Gross Science Projects.

Do you know of another site, or another book, to explore the disgusting wonders of our world? We would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below.


Umm Ahmad said...

This is a great post. My kids are already off to making their own yuckiest books! thanks for the ideas!

Keith Schoch said...

My own kids love these books as well! There's an "Ewww..!" gene in most kids that's often recessive, but books like this bring it out!

theartofpuro said...

Great post and advices:)

Christie Wright Wild said...

Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi. For younger kids, but just as great and gross, and secretly fun.

Keith Schoch said...

That is a good one! People often think that's a made-up book, but it's quite real and informative!

Thanks for checking in!

Pragmatic Mom said...

Thank you for sharing your wisdom on children's lit and reluctant readers. It's also a topic near and dear to my heart. I blog on getting reluctant readers to read extensively and wanted to share that link with you at

I hope you find it helpful!

ps My daughter actually had a teacher named Miss Brooks and we gave her the book as an end of the year present. She loved books too!

Keith Schoch said...

Thanks for sharing your blog link with us! I'll have to get over there and check it out.

Also, very cool anecdote about the teacher named Miss Brooks. Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be getting a book with my name in the title anytime soon!

Nina B. said...

I love books like these that discuss some 'gross' topics and come out very interesting, informative, and entertaining.

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