Banned Books: Dav Pilkey’s Adventures of Ook and Gluk, a Post-Mortem

Dav Pilkey signing books for fans.

Dyslexic and disruptive as a boy, Dav Pilkey has great sympathy for children who find learning to read overwhelming.  He prefers a visual format like the graphic novel because the disaffected and discouraged are more likely to be engaged.  Allowing children to read what they want with minimal adult interference strikes him as better in the long run than not reading at all. If that means the classics are not starting point, so be it.  Giving those kids wild stories flush with potty humor and phonetically spelled dialogue supposedly written by bad boys George Beard, who is Black and his white best friend Harold Hutchins, has made Pilkey a best-selling author.

Pilkey drawing his most famous character, Captain Underpants

How he tells the stories he invents is as controversial in some circles as they are beloved in others.  His most famous series of graphic novels, Captain Underpants, has made the American Library Association’s banned book list several times.  But none of Pilkey’s forty-odd books have been withdrawn until this spring when The Adventures of Ook and Gluk Kung-fu Cavemen of the Future was challenged. Many of the accounts in the media presented similar versions of the story without raising questions or adding new information, even though the issues were more complicated than they reported.  Links to most of my sources are inserted in the text.

This spring Billy Kim’s two children, both huge Pilkey fans, brought home from the public library The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, which was originally published by Scholastic in 2010. The story tells how best friends Ook and Gluk stop a predatory twenty-first-century corporation from stripping  the prehistoric world of its natural resources, thanks to learning kung-fu from Master Wong in 2222 A. D.   As a Korean-American, Kim was offended by the portrayal of Asians in the book and when his attempts to air those objections with Scholastic seemed to be going nowhere, on March 22, 2021 he wrote a petition, “Scholastic Needs to Apologize for Publishing a  Children’s Book Full of Racist Imagery,” signed with his initials.  The problems were the portrayal of  Asian characters with dashes for eyes and the proverb-spouting Master Wong character.  Kim’s description of Wong is correct but doesn’t take mention that  Master Wong  saves the friends from capture by Goppernopper operatives or that he is the only one who can explain why the world will be saved when J. P. Goppernopper obliterates his ancient ancestor Chief Goppernopper.

Kim called on the author and publisher to take the following steps.  1. Make public apologies taking full responsibility for failing to address the racist content.  2. Scholastic should alert librarians and educators about the book’s problems so informed decisions can be made about its future circulation.  3. Donations should be made to organizations whose missions are to combat racism and promote diversity.  Taking all three steps would not, in his opinion, reserve the harm already caused by Ook and Gluk:  “Every child who has read this book has been conditioned to accept this racist image as okay or funny.  It is this type of passive racism that has contributed to the continued hate and prejudice experienced by Asian Americans on a daily basis.”  It is surely no coincidence that Kim took action in the wake of  March 16th’, when a twenty-one-year-old white man killed eight people, six of them Asian-Americans, in three Atlanta-area spas.

He reached out again to the publisher on late on March 22 and when he did not receive an immediate response, assumed he was being ignored.  Dav Pilkey and Scholastic agreed immediately after learning about the petition to halt the book’s distribution, according to Pilkey’s wife and business partner Sayuri. An  undated notice on Scholastic’s News Room page announced that as of March 22 domestic and international orders for Ook and Gluk would no longer be fulfilled, the existing inventory recalled, and references deleted from the website.

Pilkey quickly invited Kim to a Facetime meeting on the 25th  Immediately after their conversation, he wrote and posted an apology on his You Tube channel.  He explained that his intention had been to “showcase diversity, equality and nonviolent conflict” (Ook is white, Gluk Black). He now realized the plot depended upon “harmful racial stereotypes and passively racist imagery.”  Pledging to do better, he announced that he and his wife would donate the equivalent of the advance, the previous ten years’ worth of royalties, and future royalties to organizations that “provide free books, art supplies, and theater for children in underserved communities; organizations that promote diversity in children’s books and publishing; and organizations designed to stop violence and hatred against Asians.”

After his meetings with the publisher and author, Kim updated the petition with information about outcome. By waiting to do this, Kim allowed the impression to stand that Pilkey was uncooperative, which Sayuri Pilkey states was untrue and unfair.  She defended her husband as acting out of the desire to make the incident a teaching moment and having a long-standing commitment to supporting groups serving minority children.  She also pointed out that he demurred from mentioning the involvement of Asian editors on the project,  receiving positive feedback from her and Elaine Oh, director of “We Need Diverse Books,”, or that Kim’s was the first complaint in eleven years.

The major points in contention addressed by March 29th,  due partly to Pilkey’s acceptance of constructive criticism and Scholastic’s quick actions, a potential public relations disaster was averted with greater sensitivity than had objections swirling around  Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington (2016), Emily Jenkin’s A Fine Dessert (2015), and Arthur C. Gackley’s (aka Robert Staake), Bad Little Children’s Books (2016).  An undated statement, “We Stand in Solidarity with the AAPI Community,” was inserted at the head of the Scholastic splash page.  The Ook and Gluk Wikipedia page was updated by someone with the information about Scholastic halting distribution, but by then the news cycle had already moved on.

Some traces of the cavemen have yet to be sent back through the time portal.   Scholastic has taken down the Ook and Gluk page and related curriculum but as of today visitors can find out about the story on the Kids Book Clubs  or download a maze puzzle with Master Wong.   Want to learn how to talk like caveman?  Download the primer of Cavemonics and annoy every grown-up in ear shot.   Pilkey’s official site still features an Ook and Gluk “Adventures Never End when You Read” coloring sheet in the “Fun Stuff” section.  By far the web source with the most material is the Captain Underpants “The Epic Tales Encyclopedia” Wiki, operated by  “Characters” can be searched for “Ook” or “Gluk”  Articles come up, with all the links live, which is the only way to access information about Master Wong, Chief and J. P. Goppernopper, who do not have their own articles.   As of today the wiki makes no reference to the recent incident.The media missed one important angle worth considering.  The Adventures of Ook and Gluk was on the best-sellers’ list for 33 weeks, Kim’s petition stated, which was probably intended to show that the book reached a wide audience and had considerable potential to shape attitudes and values.  The uncontextualized statistic is somewhat misleading without the back story.  In 2010 Ook and Gluk was slated as the second spin-off mini-series from Captain Underpants, The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby preceding it in 2002.  It was supposed to be the first of a four-volume deal.  The print run was set at a million copies.  Its first week, Ook and Gluk was second on the New York Times hardcover graphic novel best-sellers list and  first place for the next six.   For the remaining 26 weeks it made the list, it was presumably not in the top two slots.  While the sequel, The Adventures of Ook and Gluk Jr. Cave-Kids in Outer Space, was announced on page 170 of the first book, it seems to have languished in “development hell” for years until quietly cancelled, without notifying the fan base.  It sounds as if Ook and Gluk had not performed well enough to go forward, being the only Pilkey concept for a series–Captain Underpants, Dog Man, Dragon Tales, Dumb Bunnies, Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot, and Super Diaper Baby—that did not go into multiple titles.  From this perspective, it was a bit of good luck that Ook and Gluk was challenged: if Scholastic had to sacrifice any title to protect the Pilkey brand, this was the one.

And the public?  Not that many expressed support for or outrage against the author, if these two unscientifically selected samples are at all typical.  Of the 289 people signing Kim’s petition, eleven left comments, all but two with Asian last names.  “Boo” razzed Meng Cheng. “It’s self-explanatory,” said Alan Lee.   Abbie Rindfuss commented, “I teach 2nd graders and the more educated I become on these issues the more we can ensure these kids grow up Anti racist, more compassionate and empathic adults. I stand against Asian hate and all groups that have been marginalized.”  The contributors to the thread  on Technodrome Forums, a discussion group for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans, had different takes.   Goldmutant was not a huge Pilkey fan: “A lot of books are off-the-walls, satirical, and low-brow. It’s his style.”  IndigoErth mused, “I wish the info was clear what the actual misstep is in the book. Esp if it was a guy of Korean heritage, not Chinese, that found issue with it. Maybe there are stereotypes they didn’t want to repeat in the article (?), but not saying directly what the issue is just lets people go into a rage over another book being “canceled” and not knowing what the real issue is. Because only mentioning that the characters meet a martial arts instructor who teaches them kung fu and about Chinese Philosophy doesn’t sound like the actual problem.”  Jester thought Kim sounded like “a male Karen” and seem to have doubts whether a petition signed by than 300 signatories should have had the power to suppress a book.

Why, who, and how many are enough sway the publisher of an author who is no stranger to controversy to take a title off the market?   That’s a problem that deserves far more careful consideration as the trend to challenge children’s books develops in the future.

Pilkey with his fans.

Banned Books Week 2019: Captain Underpants

A dynamic view of Captain Underpants taking his creators Harold and George for a ride. Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman (New York: Blue Sky, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc. c.2001). Cotsen 152050.

Dav Pilkey’s series of twelve “epic novels” about Captain Underpants topped the 2012 and 2013 lists of banned books in America.  Since 1997 this nefarious brand issued by Scholastic (Harry Potter‘s publisher) has garnered a Disney Adventures magazine 2006 Kids’ Choice Award, inspired a ten-volume spin-off and Halloween costumes, been translated into thirty languages, and made into a film by Dreamworks in 2017.   Anyone without daily exposure to boys between the ages of eight and twelve (the fan base and original target audience) may need some background to understand the  controversy.

Anti-heroes Harold Hutchins (left) and George Beard (right) composing a comic about their teacher Ms. Ribble, whom they will accidentally transform into their creation, the crazed Wicked Wedgie Woman with “even crazier superpowers” later in the story. Cotsen 152050.

Once upon a time in an elementary school far, far away, there were two fourth graders.  George and Harold can “barely walk down the hallway without getting into trouble.”  They are the kind of boys who sit in the back of the classroom drawing cartoons about all the annoying adults.  One day they succeeded in hypnotizing their mean principal Mr. Krupp with a “3-D Hipno Ring” and suggest to him that he’s a great superhero who confronts evil in his Fruit of the Loom y-fronts. The “waistband warrior” quickly eludes his creators singing “Diapers and toilets and poop…oh my!” (Catch that parody of a megafamous line from The Wizard of Oz?)  Over twelve volumes this terrific trio goes to “fight crime” and have “many advenchures with lots of inapprpreate humor” blasting out of hair-raising encounters on the page and in real time with Professor Poopypants, the Bionic Booger Boy, the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space, and the Talking Toilets.

Here are some sample pages from volume five, Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman.  This notorious nemesis of George and Harold is their teacher, Ms. Ribble, hated for her efforts to squeeze every drop of initiative out of her students.  Below is George and Harold’s cartoon of Ms. Ribble deploying her new superpowers for evil.

Uh oh, Wicked Wedgie Woman has found George and Harold.

To heighten the drama in every Captain Underpants adventure, there is a  section of “Flip-o-Rama,” which Pilkey describes as “the world-famous cheesy animation technique that lets you animate the action!”   An innovation that will surely go down in the annals of novelty bookmaking…  The section title for the one in Wicked Wedgie Woman has an come-on no self-repecting child could resist.

Author/illustrator’s inscription in Cotsen’s copy of Wicked Wedgie Woman.

Probably the major reason for the series’ success with readers is Pilkey’s pitch-perfect channeling of his inner obnoxious school boy through rumbustious potty humor, over-the-top plots that pay homage to horror movies, sit-coms, and comic books, and sly imitation of children’s drawing.  When reading my first Captain Underpants title in 2007, what floated to the surface of my consciousness were memories of the two cartooning boys in the back row of my third-grade class.  The teacher caught them red-handed and made them come to the front of the room and share the day’s masterpiece with everyone.  They didn’t get very far because they couldn’t stop laughing and so were invited to retreat back to their seats doubled-up with giggles.  I don’t know if the teacher was trying to punish them for oblivious inattention or to redirect the conspicuous, continual overflow of their imaginations in a better way. 

But many parents and teachers are not amused by Caldecott Honor recipient Pilkey’s credo that anything goes, which seems to come from Albert Einstein.  On the dedication leaf of Wicked Wedgie Woman, he quotes the physicist: Imagination is more important than knowledge.”   Quoted out of context, it is probably a fair guess that he did not have in mind this sort of stupendously inventive and endlessly vulgar imagination integral to Captain Underpants..

As a curator who collects the history of illustrated children’s books for a university research library, I have the luxury of adding Pilkey to the collection as reflecting current cultural trends and social values without having to worry about circulating it to the Special Collections reading room, which is open only to adults.   But in any role where I would be making book selections for children–a parent, grandparent, school librarian, or teacher–the series would certainly raise in my mind legitimate issues about relevance and appropriatenes, even though I’m an admirer of Pilkey.

The sales of Captain Underpants demonstrate the series’ appeal to boys, traditionally less eager readers than girls.  Of course Pilkey’s humor is accessible to everyone and anyone who doesn’t believe that children indulge in it when adults are out of earshot are deluded. There are many people who argue that if Captain Underpants gets boys reading, then that is reason enough to let them have the books. In any of my non-curatorial roles, I would not be really happy if a child of mine was reading Pilkey to the exclusion of everything else for more than a short period of time (as part of a well-balanced diet of reading, it’s fine).  On the other hand, would I want to live with a child who thinks he has permission to be crude any time any place because he thinks he’s being funny like George and Harold?  As a teacher, would I want to hold the line that words have to be spelled correctly and it doesn’t matter if George and Harold misspell lots of words in their comics?   And to what extent does the success of Captain Underpants encourage other writers for children to lower the bar on standards for humor?

What about the 2009 picture book, Chicken Cheeks by stand-up comedian Michael Ian Black and illustrator Kevin Hawkes, a  slight but clever rhyming narrative constructed from a long list of synonyms for the part of the human body which is sat upon?

“Duck tail/ Moose caboose/  Chicken cheeks/ Penguin patootie/ Polar bear derriere/ Turkey tushy/ Gnu wazoo, Flamingo fanny/ Rhinoceros rump/ Giraffe back half/ Hound dog heinie/ Toucan can/ Kangaroo keister/ Guinea pig buns/  Deer rear/ Duck-billed platypus gluteus maximus/ Bumblebee bum!”

Would a children’s book editor taken a chance on it in 1995, before Captain Underpants made his debut?   Maybe, maybe  not.  That will be a story for some future historian of children’s reading…  Dav Pilkey has been in the news again–this time for racial stereotypes in his Adventures Ouk and Gluk, which is the subject of another post.