It all started innocently enough. A young boy checks out a book from his elementary school library, takes it home, and reads it to his grandfather during a family gathering.
But grandfather, in this case former West Salem School Board member Maynard Carlson, was offended by a recurring theme in the book: flatulence, or as it's better known, farting.
Carlson has apparently kept the book, titled "Walter the Farting Dog," and is pushing to keep it from reappearing in the school library.
According to Richard Grossinger, the publisher at North Atlantic Books and Frog Ltd, which began publishing the book in November 2001, sales of the book are approaching 400,000, which is a lot considering that 80 percent of published books don't sell 5,000 copies. And with all of those books sold, Grossinger said he has heard of "a very tiny amount" of complaints about Walter and his flatulence problem.
During a telephone interview Tuesday from his office in Berkeley, Cal., Grossinger said the book isn't really a children's book. It's more of a novelty book. He added that his company, which specializes in books on topics such as alternative health and martial arts, came to publish "Walter" almost by accident.
He said he met one of the co-authors, William Kotzwinkle (Glenn Murray is the other), socially a few years ago. Kotzwinkle, who had already had several children's books published - including "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" - described how the major publishing houses had passed on the book. So Grossinger agreed to take on the project.
The book tells the story of Walter, a dog with a flatulence problem who is chosen from a dog pound by two young siblings. Walter's problem soon becomes apparent, and Father wants to take Walter back to the pound. But Walter's problem comes in handy when two burglars visit his new home, and Father changes his mind.
Since the book hit the shelves 26 months ago, it has become the second all-time seller in the North Atlantic's 30 years in the business.
Grossinger said he has received one letter at his office complaining about the book, and a distributor told him they've received two complaints.
Grossinger said the book's depiction in words and colorful drawings of a dog farting didn't strike him as being a problem. He also pointed out the existence of another popular children's book recently published called "Everyone Poops."
"I don't think it's obscene in any sense," Grossinger said of "Walter." "Not in today's world."
Grossinger said the word "fart" "has passed from being taboo to pretty normal." But the fact that "it's still ever-so-slightly taboo" has, he believes, helped it sell so well. "It's just bad enough" to generate interest, he said.
Grossinger said he's not sure if the book is commonly found in elementary school libraries, "but my impression is yes, it is." The book has been distributed partly through an elementary school book distributor.
Carlson was quoted in the Jan. 15 edition of The Coulee News as saying the book has no redeeming value. But Grossinger countered by saying the book is "almost like a little fable." It shows that people (or dogs) can have unattractive traits, "but that doesn't
mean they can't be successful or contribute to society."
Also, Grossinger said, "it's a work of art. And many works of art are of questionable social value."
Farting, Grossinger said, "shouldn't be a taboo subject. It's not about sex. It's not about violence. It's not about drugs. It seems kind of silly to object.
"Bodily functions aren't supposed to be taboo, but for this kid (Carlson's grandson), now they are.
"I would not say this about sex, drugs and violence."
North Atlantic Books has, of course, benefited financially from the sales of the book. But the company lost the rights to other "Walter" books and products to another publishing company, which will be bringing out sequels. Grossinger added that folks will someday soon be seeing little fluffy Walters that fart in bookstores.