Don’t read this. (If the word “underpants” bothers you.)

“A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.”
~Salman Rushdie

captain underpants

I’m going to let you in on an embarrassing story: When I was little, I put my underwear on my head and ran out of the house yelling “Where’s my underwear”? “Where’s my underwear?”. The embarrassing part is: I was wearing nothing but the underwear. I thought this was hilarious. Thankfully, so did my mother.

All kids think underwear is hilarious. And if we’re honest here, many adults do too.

Or so you’d think.

It turns out that some people are repelled by the word “underpants”. Words like “poopy pants”, “barf”, “pee-pee”, and “butt” also offend.

“Poo poo head” was so offensive to parents in Channelview, Texas, that Dav Pilkey’s The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby was banned from its school in 2011.

In 2012, Pilkey’s best-selling series Captain Underpants received the dubious honour of being the most challenged book in the United States due to alleged “offensive language” and “unsuited for age group.” (American Library Association)

These challenges are formal, written complaints, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness: “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.” (American Library Association)

By now you may be thinking: That Captain Underpants must be pretty bad stuff to warrant banning it from libraries.

Let me assure you. Captain Underpants is not racist, sexist, graphically violent, devil-worshipping or sexual in any way (unless you count men’s briefs as sexual content).

So what is creating all this controversy, and calls to ban a beloved children’s book?

First a “brief” (childish laughter ensues) introduction to the series, which stars two fourth graders, George Beard and Harold Hutchins:

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George and Harold are mischevious boys who are always getting into trouble for their childish pranks, such as changing letters on signs to make crude messages.

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Together, the boys create a comic strip featuring a made-up superhero called “Captain Underpants” who avenges evil characters in his underpants and a red cape. Captain Underpants accidentally becomes real when George and Harold hypnotize their cruel principal Mr. Krupp. The story includes a cast of crazy characters such as the Incredibly Naughty Lunch Ladies, Professor Pippy Pee-Pee Poopypants, and Wedgie Woman.

Funny to some, but serious business to others: Corrupting the mind of our youth with offensive language and encouraging disrespect for authority figures.

I sympathize with well-meaning parents trying to protect their children from the craziness of the modern world. I was none to thrilled when my daughter excitedly brought home her first Captain Underpants book. I had heard it was controversial and somewhat rude.

But then, I actually read the book. Yes, a funny concept — I actually read the book to see what was inside!

A few pages in, the unthinkable happened: my daughter and I laughed. And laughed. And laughed until we nearly ***** our pants.

The book is entirely age appropriate for older children, ages 7-12, as recommended by the publisher (Scholastic). But be forewarned if you start reading this to your three-year-old. It’s much like giving your toddler a whoopie cushion. The first time is funny, but one million fart sounds later…you’ve had enough.

And once you start, it’s hard to stop. There are now ten books in the series, with more to come.

Some parents will never share a love of potty humour with their kids. If you’re one of those people, there are so many other reasons to love Captain Underpants (and why it’s loved by children and educators alike). The books:

  • encourage a love of reading, and especially amongst reluctant readers. Pilkey gets this. He struggled with reading in his school days. More than 50 million copies in print — that’s a lot of readers;
  • inspire kids to be more creative. Step away from that computer and draw their own cartoon or write a story;
  • empower children–and have a consistent anti-bullying, good over evil message. According to The Educational Book & Media Association: “Dav Pilkey is also regarded as a talented artist and inventive humorist as well as a subtle moralist…He underscores his works—even at their most outrageous—with a philosophy that emphasizes friendship, tolerance, and generosity and celebrates the triumph of the good-hearted”; and
  • encourage laughter and levity. This is actually good for children.

Even if you ignore all of the positives about Captain Underpants, I have to ask: Is the language in these books worse than some of the violent video games, cartoons and movies our kids are watching?

In this way, Pilkey’s stories remind me of Roald Dahl. Controversial amongst adults, beloved by children.

My daughter is one of those children. She was outraged to find out that anyone would want to ban these books. I mean, it really really upset her. So, I sat down and talked to her about it. Here’s what she said:

sarah's underpants interview copyMy daughter has not been morally corrupted in any way by reading Captain Underpants. She is a respectful, hard working and well-behaved student. She has never tried to hypnotize her principal. She does not (unlike her mother) go out in public wearing underwear inappropriately.

And what does Pilkey say to those who want his books banned?

“Thank you. I owe a great deal of my success to the free advertising your intolerance has generated.”

So, to summarize: Don’t get your knickers in a knot over Captain Underpants. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. And certainly, don’t watch this video. Or do the victory bum wiggle.

12 comments

  1. Really? Underpants is offensive? That word always makes me giggle. I recently babysat a couple of boys who wanted me to read one of their library books to them… “Veggies with Wedgies”… It was hilarious! And it was about exactly what you’d imagine. 🙂

  2. Good grief, if underpants offends we’ve hit rock bottom in tolerance. I don’t know a kid ( or adult for that matter) who doesn’t laugh at toilet humour. Barfing, pooing, pumping, peeing, the squirts. I have grown children who laugh right along with the youngest – worse, possibly – at anything associated. That might just be my house, right enough. :/

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