“I need next month’s book club selection,” I told Kristin, the proprietress of my local used book store and the founder and host of the book club I attend. At the last meeting she had made apologies that the selection for the June meeting had not yet come in, so I was here to pick up a copy since she had sent me a message on Facebook that it now was. “And I have a very serious request in regard to children’s literature. Do you have any Captain Underpants books?”
Kristen leaned forward and returned my own serious expression. “I have tons of Captain Underpants books. Tons. Want me to show you where they are?”
“Yes, it’s a Captain Underpants emergency at my house,” I said.
She led me over to the children’s sections and showed me half a shelf full of Captain Underpants books.
”Looks like we hit the jackpot,” I told my 6 year old son.
I’d bought the first Captain Underpants for him the weekend before on a whim, and he loved it. I have never seen him laugh like that when he wasn’t being tickled. He couldn’t breathe. For starters, the books use words like underpants, underpants and fake doggie doo-doo a lot, which is about as funny as funny can get when you are a 6 year old boy. Because they are chapter books, they take us 3 nights to read. At a visit to my father’s house after we read the first part of the first book, Sweet Pea had asked if we were going to read more of it that night.
“You bought him a Captain Underpants book?” my stepmother asked, appalled. “I mean, I bought it for Courtney’s boys when they 8 and 9, but I didn’t realize what was in it. Are you sure it’s, uhm, appropriate for him?”
The books have been known to make the banned book lists that are compiled every year. In 2001 they were banned in one district due to concerns that they caused unruly behavior among children. In 2003, they were banned for insensitivity and being "unsuited to age group," as well as encouraging children to disobey authority (as if kids never disobey authority unless they are encouraged). In 2005 they were challenged for offensive language (words like “poopy” crop up from time to time) and modeling bad behavior. In 2006 they were challenged for anti-family content, being "unsuited to age group" and violence.
From what I can see, the violence is mostly against things like villainous robots and evil people-eating talking toilets with teeth (they spit out all the teachers they ate in the end and the teachers were fine, so the books aren’t gruesome or anything). The main appeal of the Captain Underpants books is that they appeal to small boys. They love them. The humor is crude, the two little boys who are the main characters are scamps, and the grownups are all annoying and bossy. They are satire written not just from a child’s eye view, but a boy child’s eye view. Little boys are down with belching and farthing and jokes about toilets. My son was in love after the first book.
After my stepmother showed her disapproval, I made a point to get the rest of them.
“Okay, they have number 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 8 here,” I told Sweet Pea. “We’ll have to keep an eye out for number 4.”
“There’s no #4 there?” Kristen asked. “Hold on, I bet I can find you a number 4 in the back.”
I looked on the back of one of the other books.
“You’re looking for the one called Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants,” I called through the door to the secret hidden stash of books in the back of the store.
“Found it!” Kristin has an 8 year old son herself, so she is no stranger to the world of Captain Underpants. She came out of the back and tossed the book on top of the stack I had in my hand. “Do you mind putting them in one of our baskets?”
“You have baskets?”
“Over by the door in a stack, see? Chris got them, and thought it might encourage people to buy more books if they could carry them all around easier. If he’s watching on the security camera, it would be nice for him to see someone using one.”
I didn’t need a basket (the stack of books, as many as there were, wasn’t that big), but I dropped my books into the top plastic red arm basket, hooked it over the crook of my arm, and waved at the security camera in corner as I carried it to the register in case her husband was watching.
“Why did grandma think I shouldn’t read these?” Sweet Pea asked that night as we settled down for story time (which he had been looking forward to all day). “Did she think that I don’t know not to do that stuff? I know not to do that stuff. It’s just in a story.”
And he does know. He is not a practical joker, my Sweet Pea. When he’s not in the middle of an emotional outburst, he’s actually a very law-and-order sort of guy, one of those people who think that rules are rules and should be followed to the letter. When the boys get in trouble in the Captain Underpants books, he understands the justice of them getting sent to the evil principal’s office. He just thinks its funny that they can hypnotize the principal and make him strip down to his tighty-whiteys, wrap a red curtain around his shoulders and then parade around believing he is a superhero named Captain Underpants. Because really, that is pretty funny.
“I know it’s just a story. I know you know better. Grandma worries too much. Are you ready to read some more and find out what happen next?”
Maybe he will learn to appreciate good taste and decorum in books some day. Or maybe not. As one of the women I work with pointed out to me today, “I don’t care if you’re 5 or 65, farts are funny until the day you die.”