In 2012, Captain Underpants topped the American Library Association’s most frequently banned book list for its “unsuitable” content. It popped again as the #1 most banned book in 2013 for offensive language and violence. In light of the numerous challenges that his popular children’s series has faced, creator Dav Pilkey recently contributed an editorial piece to The Guardian to bring awareness to censorship as well as to celebrating everyone’s right to read.
“People often ask me how I’d want to respond to those critics who would rather see my books pulled from shelves than handed to young readers,” says Pilkey. “I do have an answer, and it boils down to the fact that not every book is right for every person. Some grown-ups are not amused by the kinds of things that make most children laugh, and so they try to stomp those things out.”
Pilkey, who first experienced censorship in the second grade when a teacher literally tore a comic that he was working on from his hands, recognizes that not every book is for everyone and yet it is the collective mentality that what isn’t right for one isn’t right for all that most upsets him. “I understand that people are entitled to their own opinions about books, but it should be just that: a difference of opinion.”
Since the series initial publication in 1997, Captain Underpants has received mixed reviews from resounding praise to parental upset. Amid the calls to have the book pulled from classroom and library shelves, though, Pilkey notes that this is a series of books that have no sex, no drugs, no nudity, and no more violence than your typical children’s cartoon. The books may be labeled as inappropriate and unsuitable, but it has also been a series that has had real, tangible benefits when it comes to young children learning to read on their own for the first time:
Although my books have been deemed “anti-authoritarian” and “inappropriate” by some, I’ve heard from parents, teachers, and kids alike that they’ve helped turn non-readers into readers. I’ve even had kids tell me they’ve “graduated” from reading my books to longer and more complex stories, whether it’s Harry Potter or the Hunger Games. For me, I’d rather focus on that than on the handful of challengers.
Though there are people out there that would ban any book because it makes them personally uncomfortable, Pilkey reminds us that it is important to recognize this as just one opinion out of many and to not let that one opinion stifle the benefits of allowing children the power of choice. “Recent studies have shown that children who choose their own reading material become better readers,” notes Pilkey. “So when a child connects to a book — even if it’s a book that we as adults might not care for — it can really change the course of that child’s life! Finding the right book is what turns ordinary kids into lifelong readers.”
Regardless, Pilkey recognizes that there is value in addressing the concerns that parents may have when it comes to their children’s reading choices. Instead of pulling the book out of everyone’s hands, though, Pilkey encourages parents and teachers to use this as an opportunity to talk about their own hesitancies and address the issue on a private level rather than negatively impacting everyone’s ability to read:
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’… When it comes to books, we may not all agree on what makes for a good read — but I hope we can agree that letting children choose their own books is crucial to helping them learn to love reading… While changing ourselves we can still allow everyone the freedoms they deserve.
Check out Dav Pilkey’s full editorial piece here and check out this 2014 video he did in collaboration with the ALA and Banned Books Week:
If you are planning a Banned Books Week event, let us know about it! We’ll post a calendar of events before Banned Books Week and plug it on social media. Send the info about your event to firstname.lastname@example.org!
We’ll be putting up more Banned Books Week resources in the coming weeks. As you’re planning your events or developing your library and classroom curricula, be sure to check out these other valuable CBLDF resources:
- CBLDF Banned Books Week Handbook
- CBLDF Comics Connector
- CBLDF Banned Books Week Gear Bundle
- Raising A Reader: How Comics & Graphic Novels Can Help Your Kids Love to Read!
- Using Graphic Novels in Education
- Adding Graphic Novels to Your Library or Classroom Collection
- CBLDF Discussion Guides
- CBLDF Banned Comics Case Studies
- Comic Book Club Handbook
- CBLDF Presents: Manga
- Working With Libraries: A Handbook For Comics Creators
Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, American Booksellers for Free Expression, American Library Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Association of American Publishers, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Freedom to Read Foundation, National Association of College Stores, National Coalition Against Censorship, National Council of Teachers of English, PEN American Center, People for the American Way Foundation, and Project Censored.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!