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Captain Underpants

captnunderpantsIn honor of banned books week last week, today’s post will discuss the popular children’s book series Captain Underpants by author Dav Pilkey.

The Captain Underpants series revolves around two fourth graders, George Beard and Harold Hutchins, and Captain Underpants himself, the superhero alter-ego of Mr. Krupp, the cruel and antagonistic school principal, who first becomes Captain Underpants after being hypnotized by the two boys. The book series includes 10 books and 3 spin-offs, and won a Disney Adventures Kids’ Choice Award in 2007.

And according to the American Library Association, it also has the distinction of being the most frequently challenged book of 2012. It has appeared on the list in the past but this is the first year it made it to the top spot; reasons cited were “Offensive language” and “unsuited for age group”. And admittedly, the subject matter, primarily toilet humor and gross-out gags, as well as a subversive and somewhat anti-authoritarian message, might raise eyebrows for some parents. But as children’s librarian Laura Giunta explains in this recent essay, banned books week is all about

[celebrating] the freedom to read, even if that includes reading material that others deem to be objectionable or inappropriate. The freedom to read is linked to our first amendment rights, specifically that we are not only entitled to our beliefs, but that we have the freedom to express them without the threat of censorship. Public and school libraries have a duty to uphold these rights and to provide a forum for all ideas to be represented, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them all. As outlined in the Library Bill of Rights, the library is not simply a place to get books, but one that affirms intellectual freedom – that is, an entity that ensures equal and uncensored access to information for all people, including information that represents varying viewpoints, beliefs, or cultural perspectives…As we celebrate “Banned Books Week,” we celebrate the freedom to read, not just for ourselves, but for everyone, including those with different beliefs, views, and values than our own. We celebrate the freedom to be subversive and irreverent, to dissent against the majority perspective, to challenge societal norms, and to disagree with authority.

So consider picking up a copy of Captain Underpants (or any of the many other frequently challenged books) and enjoy not only the “Action”, “Thrills” and “Laffs”, but also the freedom to read whatever you wish.

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May 4 2012

Dear Genius

by Patricia D

The very beginning of children’s literature was based on a need for instruction, not just in reading, though of course that was a great thing to achieve, but for turning out a person of high morals and sound character.    Early examples of Good Books for Children are, to my way of thinking, the very best of adults sermonizing.  Even my beloved Louisa May, who gave us Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom (and that other book Little Women) can never stop herself from holding forth on the dangers to a young person’s character that come with reading popular books instead of “sweet, simple, wholesome tales.”  However, dime novels flourished, French novels (le gasp!) were translated into English and children’s publishing moved forward, leapfrogging from sweet and simple to the here and now concepts pushed forward by writers such as Margaret Wise Brown.  From there it gets worse.  Shel Silverstein not only contributed to Playboy but also created witty, adult-undermining poetry and pictures for sly ten year olds.  Maurice Sendak explored the terrifying emotional landscape of a small boy in Where the Wild Things Are (but remember at the end, Max’s dinner was still hot) and drew a naked kid in In the Night Kitchen.   Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy was not a “nice” little girl, and M E Kerr and Robert Cormier were downright depressing and sometimes really mean.  Captain Underpants was too much potty humor and in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet not only does Alanna make a space for herself as a knight in a world that would deny women quite a lot, she also takes three different lovers over the course of the four books.  Clutch the pearls, mama, how can that be?

To trace some of this evolution, including the “invention” of young adult literature, one must read Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom.  I know, I’ve mentioned her before, as well as Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard Marcus, but truly, this bears repeating.  Nordstrom’s letters to her authors are whip smart, coy, cajoling and have lots of teeth.   She begged for manuscripts from difficult authors, she took chances, sometimes staking her career on something in particular and she made mistakes, which she openly confesses.  You could read it in one setting but I wouldn’t.  Read a few letters at a time and savor them.  She wrote as well as any one of her Dear Geniuses.

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