Stumble It!

Article by John Hechinger for the Wall Street Journal.



The book’s main character slaughtered his victims by running them through with sharp stakes. He once left hundreds dying slowly on a hillside while the soil grew “muddy with blood” and “blackbirds flocked around the corpses, fighting for a meal.”

Although it has the contours of a horror story — with splotches of red ink on its pages depicting blood — it’s actually a children’s book. “Vlad the Impaler: The Real Count Dracula” is widely available in libraries and is making its way into middle-school social-studies classes.

Children’s publisher Scholastic Corp. features the 128-page tale of the 15th-century Romanian sociopath in its new “Wicked History” series, also starring “Leopold II: Butcher of the Congo” and “Mary Tudor: Courageous Queen or Bloody Mary?”

Publishers are hawking more gory and gross books to appeal to an elusive market: boys — many of whom would rather go to the dentist than crack open “Little House on the Prairie.” Booksellers are also catering to teachers and parents desperate to make young males more literate.

“There has been a real revolution” in books that “have more kid appeal,” especially when it comes to boys, says Ellie Berger, who oversees Scholastic’s trade division. “It’s a shift away from the drier books we all grew up with.”

Last year, U.S. publishers released 261 new works of juvenile fiction aimed at boys, more than twice the number put out in 2003, according to Bowker’s Books in Print database. There were 20 nonfiction entries for boys, compared with just four in 2003.

Scholastic last fall started selling both “Wicked History” and “24/7: Science Behind the Scenes,” a series inspired by the cadaver-heavy hit TV show, “CSI.” One title in the series is “Help! What’s Eating My Flesh: Runaway Staph and Strep Infections!” Readers are treated to color pictures of putrefying limbs and the warning that “sometimes, relatively harmless bacteria can turn into a gruesome killer.” The two series already have more than 300,000 copies in print.

Karen Parker, a seventh-grade science teacher in Montgomery, Ala., plans to use the “24/7” series in her classes this coming fall after finding it on a recommended list from the National Science Teachers Association. “Half the battle is getting boys to want to read,” she says.

In a series called “Sanitation Investigation,” Capstone Press in the fall is bringing out “Getting to Know Your Toilet: The Disgusting Story Behind Your Home’s Strangest Feature.” Other popular selections in the grossness genre include Workman Publishing’s “Oh, Yuck: The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty” and Simon & Schuster’s “It’s Disgusting and We Ate It! True Food Facts from Around the World and Throughout History.” (Think worms, rats and squirrels.)

‘Shock Tactics’

Jan Harp Domene, national president of the Parent Teacher Association, decries what she calls publishers’ “shock tactics” to reach young males. She wants boys to read about the heroes of Greek mythology, the fantasy of Jules Verne and the antics of Tom Sawyer. “Does it all have to be blood and guts and gore?” she asks.

Eleven-year-old Yathrib Aryanpure, who just finished sixth grade in Tuscaloosa, Ala., says the answer is a resounding yes. He loved “Vlad the Impaler,” especially when the boy learned the tyrant was assassinated, ending up with his own severed head on a stick. “I like gory books,” he says. “Vlad the Impaler went on a killing rampage. In the end, he got a taste of his own medicine.”

Scholastic and other publishers are heeding the research of such academics as Jeffrey Wilhelm, an education professor at Boise State University. Prof. Wilhelm tracked boys’ reading habits for five years ending in 2005 and found that schools failed to meet their “motivational needs.” Teachers assigned novels about relationships, such as marriage, that appealed to girls but bored boys. His survey of academic research found boys more likely to read nonfiction, especially about sports and other activities they enjoy, as well as funny, edgy fiction.

Boys’ literary depth is an abiding concern in educational circles. Boys have persistently lagged behind girls in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an influential federal test for gauging achievement. The gap widens by the time they reach 12th grade.

Many experts attribute the lag to the time spent with the printed page. In a survey of bookstores this year by Simba Information, a publishing-industry market-research firm, only 2% said boys made up most of their children’s book customers. As adults, females also outscore males on literacy exams, and continue to read more. In an age when the Internet is pulling many away from books, boys in particular spend more time than girls do on computers and videogaming.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, with more than 400 million copies in print, successfully crossed the gender divide. But research from Scholastic, the U.S. publisher of the wizard series, shows that children’s interest in reading declines sharply starting at age 8 and continues to fall into the teens, especially among boys.

In battling for those boys, many in the industry consider Scholastic’s “Captain Underpants” series a major victory. First published in 1997, the series, with plenty of toilet humor and pictures, has 37 million copies in print. In 2003, Scholastic followed up with “The Day My Butt Went Psycho,” which the publisher says is “the epic tale of a brave young boy and his crazy runaway butt.” Now a trilogy with the latest installment published two years ago, the “Butt” series has racked up 1.2 million copies.

Kevin Bolger, an elementary-school teacher in Ottawa, offers “Captain Underpants” to his third-grade classes, calling the response “awesome.” “It’s like reading-candy,” Mr. Bolger says.


The experience inspired Mr. Bolger to write his own children’s book, “Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger.” It’s the story of “the bravest, boldest and, most, er, potent knight in all the land.” The hero is on “a quest to solve the riddle of the foul west wind — a ghastly odor that turns up whenever danger’s lurking.” Pearson PLC’s Penguin Group published the book in May. It’s already in its second printing, with 55,000 copies now in print.

Ben Schrank, president of Penguin’s Razorbill children’s imprint, says the book, especially the title, inspired internal debate and critical blog comments, including one saying his company had “sunk to a new low.” But Mr. Schrank calls the book’s humor “sophisticated,” saying the industry must publish fiction that “will pull a boy away from a videogame.”

Mr. Schrank might be talking about 10-year-old Parker Self. Parker, who lives in Dallas, dismisses “Charlotte’s Web” as a “girl’s book” and assigned texts from school as “good for nothing” and “really boring to read.” He prefers soccer and his PlayStation.

His mother, Hope, worried that Parker would never open a book. Then, Parker’s grandmother found a copy of “The Day My Butt Went Psycho,” and the boy was hooked. “Mom, this is a great book!” Parker raved.


Brian M Logan