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Children's Books 2009: With a reluctant young reader, the grosser the better

I never thought I'd be the sort of mom to buy a book called "Sweet Farts" for my child. I never thought I'd invest in a series called "Dumb Bunnies." I recently purchased both for Christmas.

Being a book lover and a journalist, I always imagined I'd take the literary high road as a parent and that my boy would want to read (or be read) what I had as a kid: "Charlotte's Web," "The Giving Tree" and other wholesome classics. I never thought I'd have a reluctant reader for a child, yet that's the position I'm in with my 6-year-old son, who likes books but struggles with reading and writing.

About a year ago, when he was in kindergarten, he discovered the "Captain Underpants" series by Dav Pilkey about two mischief-making elementary schoolers who are forever in trouble with their principal. I probably wouldn't have picked these out on my own, illustrated, as they are, with a bald-headed man in underwear, and boasting "tons o fun," "lots o laffs," and titles such as "Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy." But my son had found out about them in his after-school program, where a few older kids were thumbing through dog-eared copies, giggling. We now own the entire series . . . and an inflatable Captain Underpants toy.

When it comes to getting a child to read, snobbery gets you nowhere, which is why I am also the not-so-proud owner of "Ripley's Believe It or Not" (with its 3-D "lizard man" cover), "Mythical Creatures" (a pop-up book), "Look and Find: The Amazing Spider-Man" (a visual game), "The Bakugan Official Handbook" (describing the powers of the Pokémon-like cards and battle figures) and "Uncover a Tiger" (with a plastic skeleton embedded in its center) -- books that employ a lot of eye candy and gimmicks to keep kids' attention on the page. Would I prefer that he read "Make Way for Ducklings" or "Blueberries for Sal"? Of course, but they're a little too baby-ish for a boy who, like his friends, regularly uses the phrase "What the?" In my opinion, any book is better than no book and far better than TV and video games.

My son, apparently, is no different from the norm. According to Borders books buyer Susan Aiken, "You can't go wrong with potty humor" for beginning-reader boys. Anything "gross," "funny," "fantasy" or chock-full of pictures works because "it's not as difficult to read." I guess that explains why I'm constantly tripping over library books about tarantulas, "extreme insects" and robots.

This year, my son has discovered a couple more series. Both are about mice, which is good, because the four mice we've owned have either died or run away. The first is the "Geronimo Stilton" series, about a raconteur rodent's adventures. The other is Pilkey's "Ricky Ricotta" books, illustrated by Martin Ontiveros, about a mouse and his "mighty robot" pal who together fight all sorts of outrageously apocryphal battles against evil and exceptionally stupid bad guys from outer space. Heavily illustrated, these books aren't only a pleasure for my son but for me because they're finishable in the 20 minutes I normally allow for "sleepy time" reading.

He's also a huge fan of Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," which is hilarious even to me, if a little disturbing because it's for a much older kid and is introducing all kinds of ideas I'd rather he not know about at his age, such as Santa's nonexistence and party-while-the-parents-are-away teenagers. But, once again, he saw some of his older friends reading these, and now we own all four.

There are definitely worse things than spending an hour reading a 216-page illustrated book with a hysterically laughing kid who's missing his front teeth, and then, after he gulps down a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, half of which ends up on his face, having him ask me to read it again. My boy may not be reading on his own -- yet -- but he recently asked for a diary. Not a journal -- a diary, on the cover of which he added in pen: "fo a wimpy kib." I'd read what he's written inside, but it's locked. Maybe that's for the best.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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