Banned Books Awareness: “Captain Underpants”


Most of us aren’t surprised by “Fifty Shades of Grey” being the fourth most-challenged book of 2012, but would you expect a children’s book to make number one?

Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” has been repeatedly banned or challenged due to concerns over offensive language and charges of being “unsuited for age group.”

“It’s pretty exciting to be on a list that frequently features Mark Twain, Harper Lee, and Maya Angelou,” Pilkey said in a recent statement to the Huffington Post. “But I worry that some parents might see this list and discourage their kids from reading [it], even though they have not had a chance to read the books themselves.”

The Office for Intellectual Freedom received 464 challenges last year- a 25 percent jump from 2011, but still low compared to the 1980s and ‘90s.

The “Captain Underpants” books have long been debated among parents and educators. Some praise the books because they encourage boys to read, others criticize them for having toilet humor and an irreverent attitude; the title character is a superhero created by two fourth graders about their cantankerous principal, Mr. Krupp.

The series’ premise is a simple one. It follows the adventures of two mischievous class clowns, George Beard and Harold Hutchins, who have inadvertently turned grumpy Mr. Krupp into a tighty-whitey-wearing, cape-bearing superhero. With help from the boys, he defends the world from evil characters such as Professor Poopypants, Dr. Diaper, the Naughty Cafeteria Ladies, and the Wicked Wedgie Woman.

The boys are also constantly pulling off silly pranks, such as turning a sign that says, “Please Wash Your Hands after Using the Toilet” into one that reads “Please Wash Your Hands in the Toilet.”

“I don’t see these books as encouraging disrespect for authority. Perhaps they demonstrate the value of questioning authority,” Pilkey said. “Some of the authority figures in the books are villains. They are bullies and they do vicious things.”

Pilkey said his semi-autobiographical characters are based in part on teachers and principals he had between second and fifth grade- some of whom were villains who got away with it because they were authority figures.

“None of the children in my school, including me, thought to question them,” he said. “So, I do feel there is real value in showing kids that not all authority figures are good or kind or honorable.”

The president of Scholastic’s trade division, Ellie Berger, said in a statement that the appearance of Captain Underpants on the 2012 ALA list coincides with the publication of Dav Pilkey’s first new book in six years and the series’ return to national bestseller lists. Both, she says, are evidence that this bestselling series continues to inspire a love of reading (and underpants) for a new generation of kids.

The series has been a mainstay at the top of the list of formal complaints filed with libraries or schools requesting that the books be removed because of inappropriateness for over a decade.

Some notable incidents include the Riverside Unified School District in California and the school superintendent of the Maple Hill School in Naugatuck, Connecticut who sought to ban the series in 2001 due to concerns that it caused unruly behavior among children.

By 2002, it was the sixth most frequently challenged book according to the American Library Association.

In 2003 it was banned for insensitivity and being “unsuited to age group,” as well as for “encouraging children to disobey authority.”

Offensive language and modeling bad behavior were the top reasons for challenges to the series in 2005 and, in 2006, it was challenged for anti-family content, being unsuited to age group, and violence.

Three 17-year-old girls were told to leave New York’s Long Beach High School in 2006 when they showed up on Superhero Day dressed as the Captain.

The girls wore beige leotards and nude stockings under white briefs and red capes, but Principal Nicholas Restivo wasn’t laughing. He said he knew that they weren’t naked, but that it “appeared that way,” so he sent them home to change.

One of the girls, honor student Chelsea Horowitz, said that she didn’t understand the fuss. “They’re not see-through or anything.”

In spite of the ongoing controversy, the widely popular book series that began in 1997 has grown to include 10 titles and 3 spin-offs and won a Disney Adventures Kids’ Choice Award in 2007. DreamWorks Animation acquired rights to the series to make an animated feature film adaptation.

Captain Underpants has battled talking toilets and the infamous Professor Poopypants, but in the end his most challenging arch-nemesis seems to be adults with no sense of humor.


For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: The Huffington Post, Marshall University, American Library Association, NBC News, New York Sun
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

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