Walter the Farting Dog is less Lassie than gassy, but that hasn't stopped the pungent pooch from reaching his unlikely perch at the top of the best-seller list.
It was no easy climb for the malodorous mutt. A decade of rejection "passed" before Berkeley, Calif.-based Frog, Ltd. and North Atlantic Books agreed to publish the title. Since then, Walter has held the No. 1 spot on the New York Times Book Review list (Children's Picture category) five times in more than 30 weeks.
Co-author William Kotzwinkle, also the author of ET The Extraterrestrial, recalled of the various publishers who declined to work with him and fellow author, Glenn Murray: "They invariably said, 'We laughed and we laughed. But of course we can't publish it. — This attitude is still around today. There are several mass merchandisers who refuse to carry Walter."
The problem is the book's quotient for queasiness: Walter's main character suffers from intestinal gas, expelled from the, you-know, constantly. Illustrator Audrey Colman makes no bones about it — the book's cover shows Walter, hind leg aloft, with a toxic cloud of mottled, slightly greenish fumes escaping from his rear.
Canine Conundrum Pungent but Popular
"I can see why some people would be reluctant," acknowledged Sunny Takahashi, a first-grade teacher in the Centralia School District in Southern California. "A lot of people love the book Everyone Poops [by author Taro Gomi], but no one will read it to students. … There's such a fine line between what's OK and what is not."
But the book has won fans in unlikely places. Publisher's Weekly reported this summer that a privately-owned book shop in Woodstock, Vt., sold 1,000 copies. (The New York City chains ABCNEWS spoke to averaged two to four per week, per store, over the last year.) Overall, more than 150,000 copies of Walter have sold in the United States and Canada since the book's first printing in November 2001.
"Oh, I've heard of it," said Yolanda P., who works in the children's section of a major-chain book retailer in Manhattan. "It's extremely popular. People have read about it and ask for it by title."
Chris S. mans a similar section at a competing chain further downtown. "Most people are thrown by the name, but they still buy it. The last one I sold was to a gentleman in his 30s. He said it was a gift for his friend named Walter."
'Farts Grab Them Faster'
All the attention is good news for Kotzwinkle, who agreed to be interviewed by e-mail. "Reading Walter with children opens the door for a discussion on secrets and taboos. The fart itself is a taboo, and so is the word that describes it."
"We learn at home that farting is bad," agrees Takahashi, who has taught 5 to 7-year-olds for four years. "My students think it's 'really gross,' and it is so humiliating for the children who fart. You can always tell who it is because the class will erupt and one student will look horrified and turn bright red."
She said the book, which is dedicated to "everyone who's ever felt misjudged or misunderstood", could be a good story to teach compassion, but added that many will be skeptical. "I can see some teachers hearing the title of the book and saying, 'That is a book to laugh at; it has no educational value.' "
Kotzwinkle sees it differently. Recounting the story of an illiterate high school student who used flatulence to distract people from discovering his inability to read, Kotzwinkle called the illiteracy rate among boys a "huge problem." (The advocacy group Children's Literacy Initiative agreed, although noted there is little to no direct research on gender and literacy.)
"They need to be motivated to read, or they never will," said Kotzwinkle. "One of the biggest problems is finding books that will interest and entertain [readers]. Farts grab them faster than anything."
So for now, it's the smell of money that's in the air. Kotzwinkle, Murray and Colman reportedly have earned a $500,000 advance for the book's second installment. (Publicists at Dutton's Children's Books and the author's agent said it is their policy not to comment on royalty advances.) A third book is in the planning.
"I should get this for my son, he's really into farting," said a woman in a Manhattan bookshop. "He's 13. He's all about making funny noises."
But taboo lingers on — she asked that her name not be used.