A good friend of mine has been a regular participant in the America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit. A few years ago, when I asked what her role would be in the parade, she said she was going to be a rope holder for a large inflated character balloon. When I asked which character, she smiled and said, “Captain Underpants.”
I had never heard of Captain Underpants. My friend, who was an elementary school teacher at the time, told me that he was the main character of a series of books that are very funny and that most kids really enjoy. I had no interest to learn more about Captain Underpants and never gave it another thought. Until last week.
Each year, Arborwood Elementary School in Monroe, Michigan, holds the Scholastic Book Fair. Age-related books are made available for students to purchase, with the goal of encouraging student literacy. Last month, the Monroe school received a cautionary note from Scholastic that one of the books available might be controversial. The book in question was Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot, the twelfth and latest installment of the best-selling Captain Underpants series.
The controversial aspect of this book is that two of the main characters, Harold and George, travel twenty years into the future where one of the them is married to a man. Monroe School Superintendent Dr. Barry Martin told a local reporter, “Scholastic notified us and the school that there was a book that may be a little controversial . . . The school decided we’ll make it available online . . . But we won’t make it available in the actual book fair itself.” According to Martin, the actual decision was made by the Parent/ Teachers Association. It seems to this author that the school made a wise decision. The book is not totally banned from the school, and ordering the book online is not a significant burden.
Pilkey’s books have been criticized before, but mostly because of their crude, if not vulgar, wording. He is quick to defend his work, as he did in a 2014 op-ed:
To set the record straight, I should point out that my books contain no sex, no profanity, no nudity, no drugs, and no graphic violence . . . So what’s the big deal? Well, most of it boils down to the fact that not every book is right for every person. There are some adults out there who are not amused by the things that make most children laugh, and so they try to stomp these things out. We’ve all met people like that, haven’t we?
This is clever sophistry on Pilkey’s part. If I write a book that does not contain four bad things, does that mean I can then add a bad thing? Can my main character be a shoplifter or a Nazi skinhead, for example?
Pilkey’s fourth sentence above uses the straw man argument. Some adults who are not amused by his books may have legitimate reasons that have nothing to do with not wanting children to laugh. How the author gets the laughter is their concern. Some comedians use the F-bomb to get laughter, but is that good for our culture? And Pilkey’s use of “stomp” conjures an image of some wild-eyed, irrational person filled with anger.
Authors of successful children’s books can entertain and, at the same time, indoctrinate. Once the authors earn the trust of the parents, how easy it is to “slip” something into the story line that promotes a political agenda. A fourth grader may not fully understand what it means to be a homosexual, but if one of the main characters of his favorite book marries a person of the same sex, then it must be okay. Now some parents may not care, but those who do not want their children exposed to certain topics at a certain age have a right to feel betrayed.
Pilkey does not hide the fact that getting kids to read trumps what they read. He writes, “As grown-ups, we need to respect our children’s rights to choose what they want to read.” (Did you know that your children have a “right to choose” their reading material? I didn’t, either.) Of course, this is nonsense. Most young children would rather have cake and ice cream as their only food source for every meal, but any loving parent would not allow such a choice. Most young children would rather not go to the dentist, but should a parent give them the choice?
Developing a love of reading for children is crucial for their intellectual development. But Mr. Pilkey’s books are not the only funny, entertaining ones that can make that happen. If he is going to use his talent to indoctrinate, then vigilant parents must make a different choice.