Title: The Adventures of Captain Underpants

Published: 1997

Author: Dav Pilkey

Challenge status:  #1 most frequently challenged book of 2012 according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Also made the top 10 in 2005, 2004, and 2002.  Book #9 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why:  Yes, why. How has a book about an underpants-clad character gotten so many knickers in a twist? Officially it was for “offensive language”, and the sort of catch-all “unsuited for age group”. So, first let’s talk about what constitutes a challenge, since what ALA tracks are challenges, i.e. attempts to ban: “A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness. The number of challenges reflects only incidents reported. We estimate that for every reported challenge, four or five remain unreported. Therefore, we do not claim comprehensiveness in recording challenges.” What is not held is how many of the challenges were ultimately successful (i.e. resulting in a removal or ban).

Now, 2012 was something of a “medium” year when it comes to number of challenges reported — 464. The trend statistics are reported out to 2010 (1990-2010), but they show the top reasons for challenges are sexually explicit (3169), offensive language (2658), and unsuited to age group (2232). Parents were by far the largest group of challengers (6103), over 4x the challenges coming from the next largest category (patrons, 1450). And it also makes sense that schools and school libraries dominated the institutions that received the challenges — followed by public libraries. Keep in mind this is the ALA (American Library Association) that is tracking these figures.  Publishers are listed as a category, bookstores are not.

Regarding Captain Underpants, Slate magazine tries to explain why parents might hate the series so much, which basically comes down to the fact that the protagonists are disrespectful pranksters with no regard for authority, and that authority figures themselves are portrayed as buffoons. Ok, well I like Jessica Roake’s (author of the article) summary of the situation in support of the series: “the Captain serves as an excellent gateway drug to even more offensive-to-authority literature, which is actually the sinister goal of most English teachers. A place on the banned books lists puts Captain Underpants in some august company. Would Huck Finn be celebrated if he did what he was told? What if Holden Caulfield had just stayed at his nice prep school, or Ellison’s eponymous Invisible Man had accepted his lot in the South? Granted, Orwell is lacking in poop jokes (Shakespeare has some!), but Captain Underpants introduces its audience to a more relatable, elementary version of Orwell’s truth: A dirty joke is a sort of mental rebellion.” <- THIS

So, why attempt to ban this particular book? My guess is that any materials that seek to undermine the authority of authority figures end up being considered offensive and the easiest category to add “i don’t want these kids getting any funny ideas” into is the generic “unsuited to age group”. (I’m sure when those 8 year olds turn 18 they’ll have finally developed enough maturity to realize that foiling a super-villain named Dr. Diaper by sling-shotting fake doo-doo at his feet is Not Funny.)

Regarding success of ban attempts: After doing some quick research, I did find some references to this book being banned (actually banned, not just challenged) in Naugatuck, CT’s Maple Hill School in 2000, due to concerns that the books “caused unruly behavior among children”. A similar challenge in the Orfordville, WI elementary school failed (i.e. the books were retained).

First line: ”‘Meet George Beard and Harold Hutchins.’”

Synopsis: Captain Underpants is kind of a bridge book for young readers, meant to ease their way out of picture books – not quite a big kid book, not quite a comic book. I hope it won’t be giving away too many details to just tell you what happens:

George & Harold are buds who play pranks on their classmates (think pepper in pom-poms), have a treehouse, and publish their own comic books. They have an evil principal who bribes them with a video tape of their bad behavior, that he’ll show to the football team (one of their prank victims) unless they agree to become obedient automatons. George & Harold agree, but then come up with a way out: they hypnotize the principal – first they have him act like a monkey (etc.) and then they accidentally-on-purpose make him believe that he is their comic book hero, Captain Underpants. At which time Principal Krupp bounds off-campus (in costume: underpants & a red cape), battles some robbers, some robots, Dr. Diaper, and then they all go home. Oh, and the principal is still sort of under the influence of this major mojo that George & Harold laid down, so he’ll probably go on more adventures…in the next book. This is heady stuff!

The kids are pretty disrespectful and kind of rude, and the principal does come off as a jerk before he gets hypnotized. Personally I’d rather read the Cat and the Hat or maybe some Ramona and Beezus to get my fix of subversive youngsters. But, whatever, probably Dennis the Menace was as big of a troublemaker. I just re-read the book and I’m not sure where the “offensive language” is, but I have two candidates. Dear reader, are you more offended by the term “doo-doo” or by “wedgie power”? Later titles in the series push the envelope even more, with “Professor Poopypants” becoming a featured character.