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• • • Censorship Page Index • • •
  1. Entry page
  2. Religion, Harry Potter, and the Taliban
  3. The Vatican weighs in on Harry Potter
  4. 'Forbidden fruit' concept in censorship
  5. Banning 'Bridge to Terabithia'
  6. Censoring Red Riding Hood's grandma
  7. Censoring Thomas Merton, Judy Blume, — even Bill Martin Jr.
  8. The Great Textbook War
  1. Book-lynching in Indianapolis High School
  2. Saving us from 'Private Ryan'
  3. Censorship and hysteria: McCarthyism, Walter Cronkite, and a smear victim
  4. Picking the censors: William Bennett, Bill O'Reilly, or Murdoch's Fox Network?
  5. Test and textbook censors
  6. Capt. Underpants and Junie B. Jones
  7. When is it 'inappropriate'?

 

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By Jim Trelease
© 2001, 2007 Jim Trelease / updated: 7/11/13

Challenging Captain Underpants
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 potty-jokes.

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:

Dear PTA Mom:

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 worth:

   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 shot.

Libraries 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 killers were inspired by Captain Underpants? If those demented souls had been home laughing over Captain Underpants instead of pondering mayhem, we might have averted more tragedies. People concerned about "bad behavior" models should spend a little time watching the NBA, the WWF, or the NFL where there are some real-life negative role models.

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.

4) Finally, 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 night," the 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 read?"

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."

—Jim Trelease

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 Viejo, CA

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 her tongue

It 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 B. Jones. 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 Green, 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 hands?

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 said.

Lucille laughed very hard.

And so I stopped holding her hand.

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.

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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 ("pasketti") 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 asked.

"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.

BACK     • Censor subject index     • NEXT— When and What is 'Inappropriate'?

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