Ever heard of The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey?
A best-selling children’s book series, Captain Underpants tells the story of an underwear-clad superhero who faces off against super-villains like Wedgie Woman, Dr. Diaper, and the Bionic Booger Boy. Aimed primarily at reluctant readers in elementary school, the Captain Underpants series contains plenty of silly cartoons, toilet humor, and gross-out gags which children (and many grown-ups) find hilarious. While clearly not the most literary or stimulating of reads, most would describe Captain Underpants as a fairly innocuous book series for young readers.
And, according to the American Library Association (ALA), Captain Underpants was also the most frequently challenged book of 2012.
Why is a book filled with juvenile humor about wedgies and boogers the most challenged book in public and school libraries? This year, the reasons cited were “unsuited for age group” and “offensive language” (perhaps because absurd villain names like “Poopypants” and “Tinkletrousers” are too distasteful for old-fashioned fuddy-duddies). But this isn’t the first year that the Captain Underpants series has made the ALA’s Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged list (although it is the first time it holds the top spot). Over the past decade, it has made the top ten list three other times, with reasons ranging from “anti-family content,” “violence,” and even “sexually explicit” (the last, I’m guessing, is because Captain Underpants is featured predominantly – and unsurprisingly – in his underwear throughout the series, and prominently so on the cartoon covers of each book). But, out of all the reasons, the most telling complaint reported by ALA against Captain Underpants series is that it “encourag[es] children to disobey authority.”
Because, behind all of its barf and poop jokes, at its core, the Captain Underpants series is subversive and irreverent. Captain Underpants, in fact, is actually the callous Principal Krupp, who is hypnotized into becoming his superhero alter-ego by George and Harold, two fourth graders who are inclined toward trouble-making, pranks, and impertinence. The children in the story are bad-mannered and unruly, while the authority figures – namely, the teachers that populate their school – are portrayed negatively, specifically as being terrible, misanthropic, misguided, or misdirected (their names, of course, are “Miss Tara Ribble,” “Miss Anthrope,” “Miss Guided,” and “Mr. Rected”). And, as George and Harold constantly undermine the authority around them, the young fans reading their adventures revel in doing a little rebelling themselves: namely, laughing at those silly barf and poop jokes that are so often deemed as “inappropriate” by the authority around them, whether it be their parents or teachers or even the societal norms that tell them that barf and poop jokes are categorically wrong.
Countless other titles have been challenged in the last two decades, with irate patrons demanding books they disagree with be removed from library shelves or indignant parents calling for the ban of a book they find distasteful from their children’s schools. In the last decade alone, ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom received over 5,000 reports of books being challenged in either school libraries, classrooms, public libraries, academic libraries, or college classes. Over the past twenty years, these titles have ranged from bestsellers like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight to picture books like Martin Hanford’s Where’s Waldo? and Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three. They include Newbery Medal winners like Katherine Patterson’s A Bridge to Terabithia, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and a myriad of classics, such as John Steinback’s Of Mice and Men, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
While all these titles are vastly different from one another, they, along with the absurdist Captain Underpants series, all have one thing in common: they include a viewpoint or an idea that is unpopular, subverts societal norms, or contests a widely accepted belief, law, opinion, or moral standard – so much so that there is a call to censorship for fear of readers defying an authoritarian society that has already determined for them what should be popular, what should be norm, or what should be accepted.
This week is the American Library Association’s annual “Banned Books Week,” which celebrates 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.
Censorship strips us of our fundamental rights of speech, belief, and expression – and takes away any voices that may dissent against the beliefs or opinions of whatever authority may be in place. For young fans of Captain Underpants, that authority may be parents or teachers or school administrators. In extreme cases, it may be an authoritarian government. But, in many cases, that authority is simply the tyranny of the majority – a majority to which you may belong. As a librarian, I have a professional obligation to challenge censorship and ensure that the library retain materials that may present unorthodox viewpoints, including those with which I may personally disagree. However, as Americans, we all have a patriotic responsibility to protect our freedoms and protest when a book is challenged or banned from the library, even if it is a book we do not like or are against. Because, while we may disagree with the content of a book, that does not mean we need to agree that the content should not allowed to be read by others.
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.
And, if you are feeling particularly rebellious this week, stop by your local library, borrow one of ALA’s frequently challenged books, and celebrate the right to have libraries that include different types of books, uncensored, for all people to freely access – even if those books revolve around an underwear-clad superhero telling barf and poop jokes.
Laura Giunta has a Master’s degree from St. John’s University. She is a children’s librarian residing in New York State