August 2004

Chris Zammarelli

banned bookslut

Truth, Justice, and All that Is Pre-Shrunk and Cottony

Usually it’s a concerned parent who challenges a book’s presence in schools, but in Naugatuck, CT, it was concerned school officials. Superintendent Alice Carolan announced that The Adventures of Captain Underpants would no longer be allowed in the Maple Hill School because the students were acting like the unruly stars of the popular series, George and Harold. Principal Rebecca Sciacc added that the school only promotes good literature.

A group of concerned parents then petitioned to have the book returned to the school library, saying it encouraged children who normally have no interest in reading to do so.

Why would school officials be upset by the Captain Underpants series? Is it because of the constant references to "arm farts, burping contests, dirt, and potty humor?" Or would it have to do with the fact that Captain Underpants is actually George’s and Harold’s school principal Mr. Krupp, hypnotized and convinced by the two kids that he is the titular superhero?

It’s not surprising that many challenges to the series come from adults concerned about its lack of respect for authority, an attribute developed in author Dav Pilkey early. Ultimately diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, Pilkey frustrated his second grade teacher so much she put his desk in the hallway to stop him from interfering with class.

"It was there in the hall that I began drawing Captain Underpants," he told CNN.

His teacher discouraged him from writing comic books about his new character. "One day she ripped up one of my comics and told me I'd better grow up, because I couldn't spend the rest of my days making silly books. "

Incidentally, the eighth book in the series is due out sometime within the next year.

The hallmark of the series is its affection for gross-out humor. For example, in one book, George and Harold are able to prevent Dr. Diaper from blowing up the moon by distracting him with plastic dog poop. In another book, aliens use their farts to jump over skyscrapers.

The references to bodily functions sparked a challenge to Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants in Page, ND. "I didn’t care for the language. I didn’t care for the innuendos," said Dawn Ihry. The Hope-Page Consolidated School District board decided to remove the book from the school library, as well as give themselves the power to approve all school materials to prevent anything that would "label or characterize undeserving individuals in a derogatory manner" from being housed in the library.

While an extreme example, this is not an isolated case. The Captain Underpants series made the American Library Association’s Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books list in 2002, the year they were banned from Maple Hill School.

Even when schools defend Pilkey’s work, the results can be a harbinger of hassles to come. Orfordville, WI, parent Tom Hartung decried the local elementary school’s decision to keep Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space in the library. He complained to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that the school "had an answer for everything: from the First Amendment to ‘Children realize that if they do something wrong there are consequences.’"

He said that parents should always contact school officials whenever they find themselves "uncomfortable" with what their children are reading.

Of course, there’s nothing kids like more than something that their parents are uncomfortable with. When asked about Captain Underpants’ appeal, David Johnson, an eight-year-old reader in Naperville, IL, told the Chicago Daily Herald, "These books are really great if you like inappropriate humor."