I have a love-hate relationship with Walter the Farting Dog. My home country of New Zealand produces a disproportionate number of bum, poo and fart picture books, which I think speaks to our national enjoyment at free and cheap entertainment. I love books which make my kid laugh out loud, but I do have an upper tolerance for fart jokes, as it turns out. The lurid illustrations of this series suit the subject; if farts were coloured they’d look like these pictures. But they’re not exactly easy on the eye.
Perhaps for these reasons, Walter The Farting Dog is an example of a book that took a long time to find a publisher.
Kotzwinkle and Murray conceived the idea for the first book in 1990, inspired by a real-life dog named Walter, whose owner fed him doughnuts and beer and who was prone to foul-smelling flatulence. With assistance from Kotzwinkle’s wife, Elizabeth Gundy, they devised a story about a dog who overcomes two burglars with his smelly farts. Eleven years passed before they found a willing publisher, North Atlantic Books, and the right illustrator, Audrey Colman.Wikipedia
My theory on what happened there: The culture needed time to catch up. This is a book given to my daughter by my parents, who would never have stocked their own children’s bookshelves with this kind of material, but who have given their granddaughter a range of poo and fart themed stories, including this one and I Need A New Bum, and Christmas decorations which are a model of Santa’s bare backside farting ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ etc etc. Unbelievably, as kids of the 80s we weren’t allowed to say ‘fart’ — we had to say ‘blow off’, which is actually more hilarious, if only for its much wider application as a verb. No one can use that perfectly fine compound verb now without me associating it with farts. We weren’t allowed to say ‘bum’, either, by the way. We were required to say ‘bottom’, which is far more wide-reaching in its impact upon perfectly non-scatological conversations.
They say the great thing about being a grandparent is you can give the child back. Addendum: You can also give your grandchildren slightly annoying toys… and books, and you, yourself, won’t have to read said book more than once or twice. As for me, the mother, I’ve read this book quite a number of times because, let’s face it, it’s a hit. Though the other night when it was requested I did turn it down, because actually… I confess… it’s not the farting plot line that gets to me.
It’s the super creepy artwork. For some reason I don’t find the artwork of Wolves In The Walls creepy, but I do find these ones to be so. Yet they are both of a similar style — a mixture of collage and photorealistic faces, morphed slightly, as if looking into a distortion mirror at a travelling circus. The colour palette of Walter The Farting Dog is a grimy rainbow in which every scene looks like a fart. It’s really quite an achievement on the part of the illustrator that when I look at these pictures I have an almost synesthesic olfactory reaction. *looks around for the dog*
STORY STRUCTURE OF WALTER THE FARTING DOG
Walter is smelly. He needs to stop assaulting other people’s noses with his farts.
He wants to stay with this new family because otherwise he goes back to the pound.
At first glance the opponents are the burglars who break in, but no — the opponent who makes this story work is the father. It’s the father who threatens to send Walter back to the pound unless he can stop farting.
The children take Walter to the vet, but that doesn’t help. They try all sorts of different diets, but still nothing works.
The big struggle comes one night when two burglars break in. Walter has just eaten a big bag of food and is able to release a poisonous gas which renders the burglars weak and drives them out of the house with nothing. Outside, the burglars just happen to be apprehended by a police officer.
The whole family, plus Walter, learn that his farts come in useful after all. His annoying difference is accepted. We’re given big clues about the message of this book right at the beginning when we see this dedication:
Walter stays with the family. We see them all sitting on the couch in a Simpsons shot. Walter is a permanent part of this picture now.
These are not your typical picture book burglars. Usually, children get two men dressed as if they’ve just escaped from prison, in unambiguous black and white jumpsuits, wearing eye masks and perhaps carrying a torch and a sack.
THE STORYBOOK BURGLAR
Here we have some of those aspects of the archetype: Two men, one short and stocky, the other taller and thinner, and they are indeed carrying a sack and they are indeed stealing the very things that fetch nothing on eBay — lamps and whatnot — they’re not taking things of true value, like favourite teddy bears. Unlike most picture book depictions, they also look like real individuals. One of them is definitely a junkie, as coded by the adult reader.
WHERE ARE THE FEMALE BURGLARS?
We’re yet to see female burglars in picture books, unless someone can show me that it’s already been done. Two women breaking into a house would be the story in its own right. The archetypal burglar is still very much the male duo. They are older than the typical house thief, too, who in real life tend to be in their teens.
THE WALTER SERIES
Walter the Farting Dog has been a huge commercial success and more have been produced. What next for Walter? It is a requirement of storytelling that Walter leaves the house to go on a home-away-home adventure.
Walter the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Yard Sale came next in 2004. I prefer the UK title: Walter the Farting Dog Farts Again. Interestingly, it was published as Walter the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Garage Sale here in Australia. It’s true, we don’t have ‘yard sales’ here.
I’m reminded of listening to You’re So Vain by Carly Simon as a preschooler (the first song I remember listening to) thinking (for many years) that she was singing, “You walked into the party like you were walking into a yard.” That was just a pronunciation difference. Obviously I knew already what a ‘yard’ was.
I don’t believe the sequels have been as successful as the original, which tells me I’m not the only parent who will put up with a bit of farting in picture books, but how many versions do you really need, when kids are perfectly happy to read the same story over and over… and over.