The Captain Underpants series first appeared on the American Library Association's list of banned and challenged books in 2002, when parents deemed it offensive and unsuitable for its age group. In 2004, it was deemed "sexually explicit." In 2005, it gained challenges for violence and anti-family content.
The series dropped off the list for 6 years, which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the precise amount of time between Pilkey's eighth and ninth installments of the series. After the publication of Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Re-Turn of Tippy Tinkletrousers, the series topped both the 2012 and 2013 banned and challenged book lists.
Pilkey hasn't made the list again, but his books have continued to be a source of controversy, including at Arborwood Elementary School in Michigan, where Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot, the twelfth and final installment of the series, was banned from the school book fair because on page 111, one of the characters grows up, marries a man, and raises a family.
Imagine you are were of the millions of fourth graders who devoured the first eleven books, only to find your school won't let you buy the conclusion. I'm sure many enterprising students at Arborwood found a way to read the last book in spite of the ban. Kids are smart.
But that, like one of Pilkey's aptly-named lunch ladies, Mrs. DePoint.
Pilkey's Captain Underpants books are full of fake doggy doo doo, zombie nerds, flatulence, and--gasp!--happy fulfilled old age for its prankster protagonists. But at their core, these books are about writing, a fact which makes their top position on banned books lists all the more poignant.
Here are three key writing lessons young readers can learn from Captain Underpants.
Lesson 1: Kids Can Be Authors
"I guess I really shouldn't be surprised that my Captain Underpants series continues to top banned books lists around the world," wrote author Dav Pilkey in 2015. "After all, my very first Captain Underpants stories were 'banned' by my second grade teacher.'"
Like their author, George and Harold are enthusiastic and imaginative young writers with their own burgeoning comic book business: George writes, Harold illustrates, often with a purple pen. Each installment includes at least one book-within-a-book, as the plots happening in real time are always influenced by the comics that Harold and George had penned earlier.
The comics are one of the most delightful parts of each story. The author-illustrator duo comes up with wonderfully creative villains (like the "inedible hunk" that emerges from discarded cafeteria food in Book 1) and depict them with ambitious if imperfect prose. That's the first key lesson Captain Underpants offers its readers: don't let spelling stop you from loving writing. George is not worried about whether his spelling of "dispare" is correct or not. He just gets on with the story.
Lesson 2: Writing Can Be Hard AND Funny
Perhaps because their subject matter is so kid-friendly (full of exploding toilets and aliens and diaper-wearing villains), Pilkey's books are imagined to be too easy or silly for serious readers.
Those who criticize the books as low-quality writing probably haven't read them.
The second page of Book 1 introduces readers to George and Harold, who "were usually responsible kids. Whenever anything bad happened, George and Harold were usually responsible." That's Rufus T. Firefly-level banter in a book written for a second-grade reading level.
The books feature rhyme (like "Invention Convention Detention Suspension Prevention"), alliteration ("The Deliriously Dangerous Death-Defying Dandelion of Doom"), and invented vocabulary (like the "Photo-Atomic Trans-Somgobulating Yectofantriplutonic-zanziptomiser, which would be right at home in a Douglas Adams book).
The chapter transitions are endlessly creative. In Chapter 11 of Book 2, George and Harold have just been suspended from school. "Oh well," said Harold. "I just hope things don't get any worse." Chapter 12 is titled "Things Get Worse."
Although these are chapter books designed for kids who can read independently, they beg to be read out loud. Mrs. DePoint is accompanied by Miss Creant. The school secretary is named Miss Anthrope.
Lesson 3: Rules Are Made To Be Broken
Pilkey's books are often banned or challenged because George and Harold are flagrant rule-breakers with a distaste for authority figures. But those criticisms ignore much bigger lessons about how rules allow or constrain creativity. In order to appreciate Pilkey's storytelling, you need to understand the common tropes of sci-fi and horror.
For example, as Chapter 17 of Book 1 closes, Pilkey sets the scene for our heroes' unlikely escape. The Laser-Matic 2000 threatens to explode, taking the warehouse and our characters with it. "Oh, NO! cried Harold. "WE'RE DOOMED!" Chapter 18, titled "To Make a Long Story Short," is just three words long: "They got away." It's funny precisely because readers understand that normally, the next chapter would be filled with a breathless account of a daring escape.
Pilkey's books provide a wonderful launching-off point for kids' own stories. Instead of answering What happened? they answer What else could have happened? What a great lesson for young writers beginning to tell their own stories.