Over the past few weeks, I’ve written a series of posts about the apparent reading gap between school age girls and boys.
In Part 1, I discussed The Center for Education Policy’s report that shows that boys consistently lag behind girls in reading as measured by standardized tests. I also discussed the debate around the use of “gross out” books as the answer to closing the gap.
In Part 2, I delved a little deeper into the Center of Education Policy report that kicked this all off. I also offered some “context” for framing the problem.
In Part 2.5 I threw out some interesting graphs that I thought added some additional context to the discussion.
For Part 3, I’m branching out beyond what I think and enjoying some Q&A with Raymond Bean. Mr. Bean is the author of the children’s books Sweet Farts and the sequel Sweet Farts: Rippin’ It Old School. Mr. Bean first came to my attention in an AP story that asked “Can fart jokes save the reading souls of boys?” This story was run in seemingly every newspaper, blog, and PTA newsletter in North America. Mr. Bean also received a prominent mention when the inevitable backlash followed in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Bean seems to be uniquely positioned at ground zero in the war for the hearts and minds of America’s male readers. (I’ve tried a million times to lay off the hyperbole.) When he agreed to field questions from the likes of us, I jumped at the chance. Read on for…
The Baby Got Books interview with Raymond Bean, author of Sweet Farts and Sweet Farts: Rippin’ It Old School
Baby Got Books: Tell us about how the idea for Sweet Farts came about?
Raymond Bean: I wanted to write a funny book for kids. In my search for a universally funny topic I kept coming back to the topic of gas. If teaching elementary school for over a decade has taught me anything, it’s that kids find gas funny. If someone passes gas in an elementary classroom you’re going to have giggles.
I decided to try and build a fun and silly book around this giggle inducing topic. In an attempt to work science into my story, I decided to have a fourth grader set out to find a cure for the smell of human gas for his annual science fair project. My research led to a letter written by Benjamin Franklin in 1781 called A Letter to a Royal Academy. In the letter, Franklin mentioned the need for someone to find a cure for the smell of human gas. It was perfect, I figured, if Franklin could write about farts in 1781, surely I could do it today (not everyone agreed).
BGB: You are both a teacher and an author. How does your experience in the class room inform your writing?
RB: Kids are pretty honest about what they like and dislike in books. I spend my days reading with and to students. Having a constant dialogue with young readers about books helps a great deal toward developing my understanding of the kinds of books they wish were out there. I can’t wait to get more of my books out for young readers to enjoy.
BGB: I’ve read that Sweet Farts started out as a self-published book, and the agent and publishing contract came only after you were able to sell a lot of books on your own. What has that experience been like?
RB: Self publishing the first Sweet Farts book allowed me to reach my audience almost immediately. After several years of close calls and rejections, my wife and I decided to self publish under a pen name. Within three months of release we were selling multiple copies on Amazon every day. We had little more than word of mouth, but we were proving that there was an audience for the series.
About ten months after the release of the first Sweet Farts book, I signed with AmazonEncore to write Sweet Farts: Rippin’ It Old School, the sequel. About the same time I started getting more agent and foreign rights interest. A few months ago I signed with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work with such an amazing agency as I move forward as a writer. So far the first Sweet Farts book has been translated into Korean and is being translated into German and Italian. In addition, both books have been recorded as audio books by Brilliance Audio. I’m currently working on a third Sweet Farts book.
BGB: You’ve been the center of some recent controversy. On the one hand, you’ve been put forward as one possible savior for boys who won’t/don’t like to read, and on the other as being personally responsible for the downfall of civilization. This must be a little surreal for you. What do you make of all this?
RB: Surreal indeed! I was thrilled to be included in the AP article. At the time of the interview, I was a self-published author being interviewed by the AP. In my opinion, the author of the article was attempting to draw attention to the CEP report on the gender gap in children’s literacy. As a teacher, parent, and author I was elated to be included in the conversation. In the days and weeks that followed the publication of the article, I was fascinated by the response.
The point I hoped to make in the AP article was that silly fiction can help bring the most reluctant readers to the book shelf, get them reading, and leave them seeking more books. I have encountered many 8 to 10 year- old students who were video game and TV “addicted”. When this happens, reading falls away as an option outside of school. Many of these students do not live in homes where reading is a priority. Silly fiction can help some kids discover that books can be fun and surprising. Once that connection is made, young readers are hopefully eager to read.
The WSJ editorial piece was particularly surprising to me. The writer made reference to the “Sweet Farts philosophy” of education. I wrote the Sweet Farts books, but I was not aware that it was a “philosophy” of education. The article went on to state that books within the genre do little more than create, “morons and barbarians.”
I take issue with such an extreme statement. I argue there is a need for light-hearted and silly children’s fiction for the simple fact that it is light-hearted and silly. Like adults, children sometimes just need a good laugh. They generally spend a few days with a book and then are on to the next one. A few days of harmless fun with a silly book is just that, harmless.
As a teacher I encounter students every year that are dealing with divorce, sick parents, and other heart- breaking situations. Silly books can provide a much needed laugh to a child dealing with an overwhelming life experience. Is the child who has a father sick with cancer a “moron” or a “barbarian” because he read The Day My Butt Went Psycho for a distraction?
BGB: Do you get the feeling that many who criticize your books haven’t actually read them?
RB: Yes, I have a sense that some of the people who are the most outspoken probably framed their opinion based on the title alone. I’m quite certain Rush Limbaugh didn’t take the time to sit down and thumb through the Sweet Farts books. Although the visual is kind of fun to think about, don’t you think? He did, however, blast them on his Morning Update in July 2010. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the exposure. Personally, I think he might have enjoyed the books if he read them, just a hunch.
Why so many adults are paying this much attention to my book is beyond me. It is intended for ages 8 – 12. In my experience, people generally like the series. I’ve received feedback from teachers, librarians, and parents (some of them homeschoolers) on how much they enjoyed the Sweet Farts series. It’s currently being carried in over eighty library systems across the country and close to one-hundred libraries. You can search for a library near you on www.worldcat.org.
BGB: I’ll own up to suggesting in a recent blog post that just maybe the AP news story that touted your book (among others) was suspiciously timed to coincide with the release of your sequel Sweet Farts: Rippin’ it Old School. So how about it? Is your marketing team really that good?
RB: I’m pretty sure the timing of the article had more to do with the release of Dav Pilkey’s new release, The Adventures of Ook and Gluk. I think I just wrote the right book at the right time.
BGB: I’ve been talking about the “reading gap” between boys and girls for a few weeks now. What do you think is really behind the gap and what are the solutions?
RB: In my experience, every reader is different. Every child approaches reading from a different life experience. You can’t dictate a child’s readiness to become a reader. That being said, there needs to be a wide variety of good books on the shelf (and e-reader) waiting for children to discover, explore, and share. Insisting that ONLY one genre is the answer is naïve and fruitless. When young readers are immersed in all genres and many authors, they learn to love books.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that many parents read to their children when they are very young. Then, when the child learns to read, parents expect the child to read independently and still love reading. I find that when parents read chapter length books and picture books with their third, fourth, and fifth graders, it helps tremendously. Reading together not only helps increase comprehension and a love of books, it also allows for time well spent between parent and child. If you want your child to love reading, read with your child. Only, don’t be afraid to read a silly book now and again, who knows, you just might enjoy a good belly laugh together and feel like a kid again. It doesn’t get much better than that! I recommend the Sweet Farts series by Raymond Bean.
My thanks to Raymond Bean for taking the time to chat with us. Anyone who has been taken to task by Rush Limbaugh has our enduring respect and admiration.