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The Straight Poop on Potty Humor

We are each the mother of two young children who range in age from four to eight. These children love potty humor, and they’re not alone. There’s something about those four ps (poop, pee, penis, puke), a couple of bs (burp, butt), and an f (fart) that gets kids giggling. Some adults love this type of humor, some tolerate it, some can’t stomach it, but it shows up a lot in children’s books, and not just the crappy ones.

The now-infamous picture book Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi, first published in Japan in 1977, was published in the U.S. in 1993 by Kane Miller (a company specializing in international imports) to mixed reception. Never before had we seen such a cheeky presentation of so many creatures’ bare backsides and what comes out of them. The text is a combination of straightforward information (“All living things eat, so everyone poops”) and silliness (“A one-hump camel makes a one-hump poop. And a two-hump camel makes a two-hump poop. Only kidding!”). Some, including The Horn Book, praised its child-friendly — and funny — presentation of a normal bodily function. Others weren’t convinced. “Okay, so everyone does it — does everyone have to talk about it?” asked Publishers Weekly in its review, concluding, “Call it what you will, by euphemism or by expletive, poop by any name seems an unsuitable picture book subject.” In 1997, Kane Miller brought out another Japanese import, The Gas We Pass: The Story of Farts by Shinta Cho (you may remember the cover illustration of the giant elephant’s bum). Both books became bestsellers and contributed to the trend of hip adults buying picture books for their own amusement (reference the 1997 New York Times article “Adults, Too, Like 2 Children’s Books About Digestion”).

Beyond the novelty-book, shock-value of picture books showing bottoms doing what they do, the books are actually educational (there are real scientific diagrams!) and in fact were part of the My Body Science series. Using humor to break the ice, they bring a subject that’s taboo for many Americans into the mainstream picture-book pipeline. A case can also be made for them being sociopolitical: everyone poops, no matter their background (or their species). At a very basic level, bodily functions are one thing we all share, and these two Japanese imports — at once matter-of-fact and tongue-in-cheek — encouraged Americans not to take themselves, or their picture books, so seriously. Other, more sophisticated books discuss the universality of bodily functions using humor (Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley’s It’s Perfectly Normal and It’s So Amazing! are two that come to mind), but none so nondidactically as these.

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It’s true that everyone poops, and one rite of passage for young children is learning how to do so unassisted. Potty training can be the absolute worst, for parents and kids alike. Books directed at children on the topic endeavor to help the process move more smoothly; see You Can Go to the Potty coauthored by pediatric pop-guru Dr. William Sears (with Martha Sears, R.N., and Christie Watts Kelly, illustrated by Renée Andriani), I Use the Potty by Maria van Lieshout, and Once Upon a Potty by Alona Frankel. Some of them have a soothing, go-at-your-own-pace tone; think the classic Mister Rogers book Going to the Potty, with its use of accurate biological terms and its encouraging, optimistic narration.

But there are also smart-alecky books intended to simultaneously teach and entertain new potty users. How to Pee: Potty Training for Boys by Dr. Todd Spector and Arree Chung (and its companion volume for girls) presents ten peeing “styles,” each with a four-step process. “Cowboy style”: “Step 1: Don a hat, pardner. Step 2: Find your holster. Step 3: Put your hands on your hips. Step 4: Pee-haw! Yee-haw!” It’s a training guide, sure, but one that also aims to get a laugh; and with the silly, energetic illustrations, it looks like a picture book a kid would want to pick up. The Saddest Toilet in the World by Sam Apple and Sam Ricks follows the adventures of an underappreciated potty who runs away from home and has a blast in the city while its little-boy owner (and his mother) stay one step behind until a heartfelt reunion. It’s the classic hero’s journey with a decidedly irreverent twist.

And once the diapers are off, bring on the undies. For those who want to know what’s going on under there, lots of silly picture books can be found that provide G-rated versions of bums and undies. Books such as Brief Thief by Michaël Escoffier and Kris Di Giacomo and Vegetables in Underwear by Jared Chapman will elicit lots of laughs. Don’t be fooled by Laura Gehl and Tom Lichtenheld’s One Big Pair of Underwear, though. This one also offers tons of content learning: math, spelling, word families.

Because of anatomy, some potty-themed books do include “boy” and “girl” versions. Body parts notwithstanding, no one has the premium on puerile laughs, and we are seeing an increasing number of much-welcomed potty-humor books that subvert gender roles and expectations. The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton, about a girl who wants to play with the big boys (including Vikings and warriors) but is frustrated by her doe-eyed steed, gets some of its laughs from pony farts. You DON’T Want a Unicorn by Ame Dyckman and Liz Climo stars a little boy who’s dying to have a unicorn for a pet, and the jokes rely partly on unicorn poop and glitter. No Tooting at Tea by Alastair Heim and Sara Not (hot off the presses: April 2017) turns the rules of “ladylike” behavior on their ass (over teakettle) at a make-believe dress-up tea party. It was never just the boys who giggled at poop and farts — and never just the girls who loved unicorns — and now all those little gender-nonconformers who find body humor funny can see themselves reflected.

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An engaging subset of informational nonfiction books for younger readers and middle graders trends toward humor, especially when it comes to animals and animal behavior (including humans). Perhaps influenced by their picture-book precursors Everyone Poops and The Gas We Pass, books such as Nicola Davies and Neal Layton’s Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable and Charise Mericle Harper’s Flush!: The Scoop on Poop Through the Ages take the education out of the classroom and into the bathroom. Each is scientifically sound, kind of gross, perfectly natural, aware of the humor some will find intrinsic in its subject matter, and frequently intriguing. Ginger Wadsworth’s Poop Detectives: Working Dogs in the Field, for example, introduces readers to dogs whose job it is to sniff for animal scat. We meet and learn about the dogs themselves, their trainers, and the people who study the canines’ discoveries. Who says scientists are stuffy or boring? These types of details are fascinating to many inquisitive children, and when they’re presented in accessible book form — a legit book that’s about science, no less! — it takes some of the intimidation out of informational nonfiction and piques their curiosity.

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Our own children are just getting into the middle-grade range, so the world of Captain Underpants and his ilk are hot on our trail. It’s not just those young people deemed “reluctant readers” who love these types of books — anyone who thinks bodily functions are more hilarious than embarrassing can enjoy a good Professor Poopypants thwarting. And you don’t have to love ’em to write ’em. As Tom Angleberger, author of such books as Poop Fountain!, said in a recent Talks with Roger interview: “You won’t believe this, but I don’t actually like potty humor. I’m very uncomfortable about it. I don’t like saying the word fart. I don’t like discussing it. But somehow it ends up coming out.”

“I want to poop on Donald Trump,” announced a four-year-old of our close acquaintance recently. He was gratified first with stunned silence (the element of surprise can be so useful in humor), then uproarious laughter. It’s a perfect four-year-old joke…that only works if the listeners agree politically. “I want to poop on Gandhi,” for example, might’ve gotten this kid sent to his room, or at least Talked To about why we do not use bathroom words at the dinner table and why it is not nice to talk about pooping on people. But not in this case. (Don’t you judge us.) The statement was transgressive because he knew he wasn’t supposed to say things like that; it was gross, in an age-appropriate way; and it was also cathartic for the adults around him. All of our frustrations, fear, sadness — all summed up in those seven words. He was saying nothing of substance, but what he was saying resonated with us.

Potty humor can be the great equalizer. We’ve all been there, every day; it’s normal and natural; yet we don’t often talk about it in polite company (“private parts” are called that for a reason). Do we love potty humor? Not necessarily. But it has its moments, and sometimes parenting is all about going with the flow.

From the May/June 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Humor.

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Elissa Gershowitz and Kitty Flynn About Elissa Gershowitz and Kitty Flynn

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor and Kitty Flynn is consulting editor of The Horn Book, Inc. They co-parent the Horn Book's Family Reading blog at hbook.com/welcome-to-family-reading

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