A few weeks after the Parent-Teacher Organization at an elementary school in Monroe, Michigan banned the latest Captain Underpants book from a school book fair because it reveals that one of the main characters is gay, a school district on the other side of the state is taking a different tack. Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot will be available at next week’s book fairs in Rockford Public Schools, but the superintendent sent a letter to all elementary parents notifying them of “material that may not align with the values of many families.”
Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series is published by Scholastic, which runs a robust book fair program allowing students and their parents to buy books at a discount with part of the proceeds going to the school. After receiving inquiries from the district about the superintendent’s letter, the publisher issued a statement regarding the book:
Children all across the country live in families with varied family structures and our authors are moved to portray these families in their books. While the author gives us a glimpse of Harold’s future and his partner, this is not the focus of the story. Rather it is about Harold as he is in school at the present. Of course, at Scholastic we recognize that not every book is for every young person. Therefore, we encourage families and teachers to take an active interest in their children’s reading choices so that a child will not select a book that is contrary to her or his family or community values.
Unlike at Monroe’s Arborwood Elementary School, where the PTO opted to remove the book from its fair, Rockford superintendent Michael Shibler sought a compromise with his letter to parents. Explaining his decision, he told local news station WXMI that “I’m not trying to pass judgment on anything. I’m just saying, I’m going to inform you as a parent so you make the decision whether you want to buy this book at the book fair for your child.”
While it might have been better to treat Harold’s orientation as the non-issue that Pilkey obviously intended it to be, the fact that the book remains in Rockford book fairs is encouraging. More concerning, however, is a brief mention on the news site MLive.com that The Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot “is not on the shelves in any of the Rockford elementary libraries.” A search of the district’s library catalog shows that is not quite true; there is one copy held at Belmont Elementary School. By contrast, though, district elementary libraries stock four copies of the previous book in the series in English and two in Spanish.
Without more information, it’s impossible to say whether the dearth of school library copies for the newest title is due to bias, concern about angering parents, a directive from district administration, or something else entirely such as budget cuts. One thing it’s almost certainly not is a lack of demand from students, who have made the gleefully taboo-busting series a great success throughout its 18-year run.
UPDATE: This article previously stated, based on local news reports, that publisher Scholastic had preemptively notified Rockford City Schools that the book in question features a gay character. Scholastic has since clarified via email that its statement on the matter was provided to the school district only after it received inquiries about the superintendent’s letter to parents. The article has been changed to reflect this information.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.