There are some authors who turn up again and again on banned-book lists: John Steinbeck. Harper Lee. Toni Morrison. More recent mainstays like Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey. The reasons why those perennial entries rub censors the wrong way usually aren’t surprising – adult themes, challenging ideas, touchy subjects, outdated assumptions – but it’s not like you could tell right away from the covers or the titles of those books that they were going to cause upheaval. To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t sound very controversial-unless you’re the mockingbird. The Kite Runner? Kites are fun. The Color Purple? Hey, who doesn’t like purple? The titles sound benign; the covers are sedate. You must actually dig into the text before you start to find things that might agitate self-appointed gatekeepers who try to keep everyone’s bookshelves cleansed of impropriety.Captain Underpants, though. That’s another story.
There’s underwear in the title. Underwear. The bad guys in the books include Professor Poopypants and the Wicked Wedgie Woman. The whole series is a twelve-volume monument to potty humor. In a culture where nobody ever flushed a toilet on television until 1971, that’s a full-on provocation. Whatever else these explosively popular books may be, they are also a supremely successful act of trolling.
Author/illustrator Dav Pilkey would no doubt declare that these books are not specifically designed to annoy authority figures, that they’re simply optimized to appeal to young readers’ senses of humor and fun. To which I say: tomayto, tomahto.
The banned-book lists routinely report that these books – about two rambunctious schoolboys repeatedly humiliating their foolish and despotic principal – were cited for “encouraging disruptive behavior.” Ya think?
These tales, with their booger boys and their turbo toilets, are such obvious candidates for banned-book lists that you’d think the book-banners wouldn’t even bother. You’d think they’d say, “This book cover features a befanged potty and a fleshy hairless oblong in tighty-whities: people can see what they’re getting here, let’s go count the bad words in Maya Angelou instead.” But I guess if bait were easy to resist, fish would be harder to catch.
Besides, objections to Captain Underpants aren’t based solely on its crudity and undergarment-centrism. Some folks also didn’t like it when the last book in the series included a same-sex couple. And more recently, one of Pilkey’s spinoff titles, The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, attracted attention for racist imagery, resulting in an apology by Pilkey and the book’s withdrawal by its publisher.
But one can’t help but think that a lot of the persistent suspicion of Captain Underpants has to do with narrow grown-up assumptions about the kinds of things kids ought to be reading. Y’know, books of virtue and substance. And yet if you’ve ever paged through one of Pilkey’s volumes you’ll see that they aren’t just shallow catalogs of scatology. On one level, they’re metafictional meditations on the relationship between life and art. On another level they build a universe of increasing complexity with an expanding cast of recurring characters and a serial mythology of evolving intricacy. Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers is over 300 pages long; this guy islike the Tolkien of poop jokes. And on yet another level, sure, they’re also about what happens when you feed creamed chipped beef to a talking toilet.
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