Is a gay character the worst thing about Captain Underpants?
Captain Underpants, the titular hero of the hugely popular series of children’s books by Dav Pilkey, is not a good role model. He’s no Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen. These books are not the Great American Novel, and to my knowledge, they haven’t won any Newbery awards. Anyone who looks at them and expects a lesson or moral to be taught at the end is kidding themselves because Pilkey doesn’t exactly hide the content of his books behind a misleading book cover or title.
I would never read one of the Captain Underpants books aloud in a classroom of children. Not because I’d be embarrassed to say words like “poopy” and “nostril nuggets”, but because I’d never be able to finish a page without the class erupting into fits of giggles. And further, the books are designed to be something you have fun with; as a student and later as a teacher, I was especially interested in flipping through the pages as quickly as possible to see the illustrations that Pilkey hid in the corners.
All that being said, Captain Underpants has always lived on the shelf of any classroom I’ve been a part of.
When parents of a child ask what they can do to get their 8-year-old boy to read more, I usually dive into the stacks to find a Captain Underpants book.
There are patrons of the library who, despite having moved on to chapter books or more young adult content, still want to keep up with one of their favorite characters.
If I had children of my own, it would be hard for Dad to not make a recommendation that they read at least one of these books by the time they turn 10.
Unfortunately, the American Library Association reported in 2013 that Pilkey’s books were at the top of the list of most frequently challenged books in both public and school libraries that year. “Offensive language, unsuited for age group, and violence” — fine, whatever. It’s not like there aren’t hundreds of other books on that same list that are perfectly harmless. As long as one person objects to a book, it goes on the list.
For all of the many legitimate reasons a parent might take issue with the book, there’s one complaint that could only be made about the latest book in the series: The Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-a-Lot, in case you’re not caught up.
A main character in the book is gay. DUN DUN DUN.
Monroe Public Schools in Monroe, MI allowed the PTO (Parent-Teacher Organization) of one of their elementary schools to ban Sir Stinks-a-Lot from their upcoming Scholastic book fair because children can’t be trusted to select a book that won’t turn them gay. I’m paraphrasing, of course. The actual quote:
“Most of the kids come in and they buy books and the parents aren’t part of the selection. In this case, we felt it was necessary that if this book was going to be purchased, the parent needed to be involved in that.”
I think my explanation made more sense, really.
Parents aren’t involved in a lot of decisions their children make throughout the day. As cliché as it sounds, censorship has always been a slippery slope. First we decide a book is too dangerous to allow a child to purchase without their parent’s involvement… next, it shouldn’t be on the shelf in the school library, either. If your children’s friends have parents who are either progressive or oblivious and they are allowed to read Sir Stinks-a-Lot, how can you prevent them from sitting down at the lunch table and dropping a bombshell: a man loves and cares for another man and together, they raise a well-adjusted child.
I mean, how are you ever going to explain that to your nine-year-old? It was bad enough when Mitch and Cam got married on Modern Family and you had to tell them that sometimes, when two people love each other just like mommy and daddy do, they’re ridiculed and made to feel “broken”.
And thanks to the Supreme Court, now you’ve got to change your story and let them know that some people (hippies, heathens, people who live on the coast, etc.) think that those people deserve to be treated just like mommy and daddy and, soon after realizing that they only got married because your stupid snot-nosed self had to go and be conceived after one fateful drunken night…
Okay, I got a little sidetracked. Back on topic.
In the same book where two boys inexplicably turn their horrible crotchety principal into a superhero whose only costume is a cape and a pair of Hanes cotton briefs, you’re most concerned with the fact that a character is onlyimplied to be gay? I haven’t read the book yet but according to at least one article, the issue is centered around a single page:
Let me explain this page for those of you who have never read one of these books and don’t know the characters. Harold and George are the two kids in the bottom right corner, and they are the series’ main characters. It’s their imagination that dreams up Captain Underpants and all of his many adventures. In Sir Stinks-a-Lot, Harold and George end up traveling into the future and meeting themselves as adults (helpfully named Old Harold and Old George). Old Harold and Old George are both married (not to each other) and have two children each. They all look rather happy (although George’s daughter Meena doesn’t seem to be amused by the arrival of the pint-sized version of her dad).
(Ironically, if you were reading this book not too long ago, you might think that the complaint is in response to Harold (an African-American) marrying and having children with a Caucasian woman. It’s weird how society’s view of what is morally right and wrong changes over time…)
I think it’s safe to assume that the next page doesn’t depict a pride parade or an orgy filled with debauchery and, I don’t know, a pyre of burning Bibles?
So did you spot the controversy? No? Or maybe you read the words “Old Harold, his husband, and their twins” and didn’t immediately stick your fingers into your ears and begin humming loudly? Well, that was it. Kids reading this book, the 12th in the series, just found out that one of the characters they’ve followed throughout a dozen silly adventures gets to have his own happy ending in life, beginning a family with the person he loves.
I’m obviously not pleased by the PTO’s decision. And I’m blatantly playing on the stereotype of the Bible-thumping opponent of gay marriage and equality. So if you made it this far and you’re still not sure how to feel about it, let me step back and let Dav Pilkey himself explain the problem:
“I understand that people are entitled to their own opinions about books, but it should be just that: a difference of opinion. All that’s required is a simple change. Instead of saying ‘I don’t think children should read this book,’ just add a single word: ‘I don’t think MY children should read this book.’”
In my experience, PTOs are almost always composed of a handful of the most devoted parents. I don’t think they’re bad parents. I just think that, by forcing an entire school to not have access to a book because they don’t think it’s right for their children, they are making a dangerous mistake. This might protect them from needing to have an uncomfortable conversation with their children, but you might be snuffing out another child’s love for reading by claiming that the book they love is “bad” for them.
My primary goal with Captain Underpants is to make kids laugh and to give them a positive experience with reading at a crucial time in their development. Recent studies have shown that children who choose their own reading material become better readers. (Dav Pilkey, The Guardian)
I have taught many children, especially boys, who find everything about reading to be horribly boring and an absolute waste of their time. Books featuring characters like Captain Underpants, with plotlines that weave everyday life into the fantastical world of a child’s imagination, might just be the only thing they can stomach reading… for now. But reading that book could be the key to them finding other books that they are interested in.