and the Irrepressible Junie B. Jones
ach passing year seems to bring a new censorship challenge.
Judging from the trivial nature of some book "challenges," I
wonder if some of the challengers have a little too
much time on their hands. Witness the following exchange
of emails involving Captain Underpants, a
humorous series of short novels aimed at early primary
grades, written by Dav Pilkey, and spotted with
Dear Mr. Trelease:
I am a little upset at the censoring
of books that our principal is currently imposing
on the PTA Book Fair. Our principal will not allow
Dav Pilkey's "Captain Underpants" series to
be sold at the book fair. Her impression is that
the characters portray bad behaviors and thus encourage
bad behavior by the readers (the students). However,
I have seen boys develop such a fondness for these
books and desire to read these books. I think the
books should not be banned. I'd appreciate any opinion
you might offer. —PTA
Mom, Mission Viejo, CA
And my response to the parent:
For the record, here are a few observations
about the Captain Underpants series. Feel free to pass
them on to higher authorities for whatever they're
1) Most book banners
are long on "blocking" and
short on "marketing." That is, they fail
to understand that the best publicity a book
or movie can receive is to be "banned." As
soon as the ban is announced, there's a mad rush to
see the movie or read the book. This is so generally
recognized that many Hollywood observers claim some "bannings" actually
have been orchestrated by the production company
to give a mediocre movie a much needed publicity
and book stores attest to the same pattern among readers
when a book is banned. If such bannings were effective,
then John Steinbeck's Of Mice
and Men would be out
of print, as would Harry Potter,
Bridge to Terabithia,
and Judy Blume's books. Instead, they stay in print
long after other books have gone out of print. As an
author, my daily prayer is that someone will ban one
of my books; better yet, ban ALL of them!
Thus I am
sure Dav Pilkey is somehow thrilled with your school's
banning. Further, the true measure of a book is taken
over time. Good books last, bad books die. Their
average life: Four years in print. This is exactly what
happened to the Goosebumps books
that so many people were concerned about a few years
ago. Within six years, they pretty much disappeared.
R. L. Stine's 15 minutes finally expired.
2) The argument that Captain
Underpants' characters exhibit bad behavior and thus encourage
bad behavior by students—that also fails to connect
with reality. Students (especially boys) have been
exhibiting bad behavior for as long as there have been
schools. The students with the worst behavior problems
are usually the poorest readers. So if
they do the least reading, they can't be modeling
on the bad behavior of characters in books.
Do the book banners
really think those Columbine or Virginia Tech
were inspired by Captain
those demented souls had been home laughing over
Captain Underpants instead of pondering mayhem, we
might have averted more tragedies. People concerned
should spend a little time watching the NBA, the
WWF, or the NFL where there are some real-life negative
3) If we're going
to eliminate the books containing bad behavior, then
the first book to go is the Bible. How about some
of those guys in the Old Testament? And then there's
the Holy Week crowd, not to mention the behavior
of some of Jesus' disciples.
this anecdote from a Saturday afternoon parent program
I gave in Ojai, California, January 2001.
A mother nervously asked: "My
nine-year-old son has never been interested in reading.
He's always done the very least. So he's not very good
at it. Then last week, I picked him up at school and
he never took his head out of a book. When we pulled
into the driveway and I got out of the car to go in
the house, he sat in the car reading, as though he
didn't even know we were home. I wasn't sure if I should
tell him to get out of the car but since he'd never
been that interested in a book before, I left him alone.
("Good thinking there," I interrupted.)
"He finished the book that
mother explained, "and got the next book in
the series the next day at school. And again, the
same reaction. So you might think I'd be happy, which
I am—mostly. It's just that I'm a little concerned
about the series he's fallen in love with." (At
this point, I know exactly where she's going.) "It's
called 'Captain Underpants.' Is this OK for him to
My response: "If you're a praying
woman, get on your knees tonight and thank God for
Captain Underpants. The research overwhelmingly
shows that lifetime readers (which includes graduate students)
cut their reading eye-teeth on 'series' books and
comic books, not the classics. The more 'junk' they read,
the better they got at reading and thus were able
to graduate to more sophisticated books later. I knew
immediately which series you were talking about because
my 6-year-old grandson wants that same series read
to him every day. I rest my case."
Dear Mr. Trelease:
Thanks to your response, our
principal has reconsidered her stand on banning the "Captain
Underpants" books from the book fair and is now
permitting them to be sold.
Now, if I can convince the
PTA members to use this book fair, not as a spring
fund raiser, but as a service only to encourage summer
reading . . . hmmmmm (I remember from either one
of your talks, or directly from your books, that
you have said if a PTA is using the sale of books
to young children to raise money "Shame on you!")
I've tried once before to have the members take a
second look at this, perhaps it is time to revisit
it once again.
—PTA Mom, Mission
Dav Pilkey can be heard in
a 5-minute interview with NPR's "Morning Edition" (2013), telling
the history behind his Underpants series — going
all the way back to second grade.
Expelling Junie B. Jones and
wasn't potty-jokes that brought the wrath of parents
and teachers down on Barbara
Park's series of short
novels about six-year-old Junie
Nonetheless, when irate fundamentalists in
Wake County, North Carolina, presented
a list of their "unwanted" books to the school board, Junie
B. was listed
with Cassell's Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, and In
the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak.
Considering The Chocolate
War and In the Night Kitchen have
both been in print for more than 30 years (versus the
average book that stays in print for only four years),
one must wonder what cave the protesters have been
living in for the last quarter century. There is only
one overwhelming factor that keeps a book in print for
that long: sales, lots of them, year in and year out.
And since no one can point to any temporary or lasting
damage done by those millions of sales in 30+ years,
why are they ringing the alarm bell? Is someone looking
for attention or do they have too much time on their
The alarm over Junie
B. is her
impetuousness and use of words like "stupid," along
with an occasional errant sense of grammar. Indeed, she
has the same persistent trouble with "pasketti" (spaghetti)
that President George W. Bush has with "nucular" (nuclear).
Consider this excerpt from Junie
B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, devoted to her class's
tour of the school on their first day in kindergarten;
Junie already has one kid she doesn't like—"that Jim—from
the morning ride on the school bus:
After that we went to the cafeteria.
The cafeteria is where the kids eat lunch. Except
not when you're in kindergarten.
“Ummm!” I said. “It
smells yummy in here! Just like pasketti and meatballs!”
Then that Jim turned around and
held his nose.
“P. U.. . . I smell you,” he
Lucille laughed very hard.
And so I stopped holding her
The next place we went to was
the nurse’s office.
It’s very cute in that
place. There are two little beds where you get
to lie down. And two little blankets that are the
color of plaid.
Our nurse doesn’t look
like a nurse. She doesn’t wear white clothes
and white shoes.
Our nurse is just a regular color.
Lucille raised her hand. “My
brother said that last year he came here. And you
let him take off his shoes. And he got a drink
of water in just his socks!”
That Jim turned around again.
“P. U. . . . I smell your
feet,” he said to Lucille.
This time Lucille stuck out her
tongue at him.
After that, we held hands again.
If we can't recognize ourselves and
our children in this excerpt, then we and our children
have been living the lives of saints. "Our
nurse is just a regular color"—Oscar-winning
scriptwriters can't write dialog better than that.
"They've stolen 600 copies
from my classroom in five years."
The magnetism of Junie
B. is that she personifies
perfectly and humorously so many of our repressed
thoughts and fears as children. If her occasional misbehavior
went unaddressed, she'd be a bad example. But that's
not the case. She receives her just rewards and punishments,
serving as a morality tale for young readers but
without sermons. True, her lapses in grammar and diction
go uncorrected, but so did the vernacular in The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer and it didn't turn a nation
of young "Lincoln's"
into thick-tongued illiterates. The Junie
B. Jones books are
creative fiction, they're not grammar or spelling books
and let's all thank God for that. What we have in her
is what has always been missing from textbooks—something
you'd like to hang around with after school.
Nothing describes the attraction of
Junie B. better than this personal anecdote from 2006.
I was working with the faculty at Esperanza Elementary
School in downtown
Los Angeles, a school that deals with
children coming from migrant, immigrant, and often poverty-stricken
families. In my talk with the faculty I mentioned the
Junie B. books and afterward a second-grade
teacher approached me. "I was so glad to hear you
mention the Junie B. books."
"You're a fan of Junie B.?" I
"Oh, yes," she replied, "and
so are my students. Big fans. They've stolen
600 copies from my classroom in five years." She
went on to explain that she kept replacing them, at her
own expense, and reasoned that if they loved Junie so
much they wanted to bring her home with them, then she
would somehow feed that hunger in the students.
Please note: Those
second-graders were not stealing textbooks. Just Junie
B. There's a lesson
there and it's hidden only to the senseless and witless
in places like Wake County, North Carolina or the New
York City suburbs. On July 26, 2007, The
New York Times devoted almost
a half-page to the ongoing debate in the suburbs
about Junie B.'s antics and whether she should be banned
from classrooms and bedrooms ("Is Junie B. Jones
Talking Trash?" by Anna Jane Grossman). You can
find that article online at: www.nytimes.com/2007/07/26/fashion/26junie.html.
If you're looking for the next step
up from Junie B., someone with a softer edge but no less
unique and irrepressible, then check out Lois Lowry's
Gooney Bird Greene.
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