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…