Thursday, April 25, 2013

U: Captain Underpants

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 Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers (Captain Underpants, #10)


Yep, that's right.  I shall go boldly into the fray, and talk about Dav Pilkey and Captain Underpants.  A recent article forwarded me by my boss noted that libraries received more complaints last year about Captain Underpants being inappropriate than they did about Fifty Shades of Grey.  Naturally, this is in part because parents worry about what their little ones read, and not what they themselves are reading (though of course there is nothing to stop us checking  Fifty Shades out to young teens, and in fact though I feel it is completely inappropriate for teens, we do not and cannot censor.  But that's a different post).

So why do people, er, get their undies in a bunch about Captain Underpants?  I have a list of possible issues:
--Potty humor
--disrespect for authority
--pranks and bad behavior
--deliberate use of misspelling
--complete and utter absurdity of the plots

To help me think about this, I read the latest, Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers.  I hadn't looked at any since about 4 books into the series (this is #10), and was struck by a couple of things.  For one, the text seemed more substantial.  Also, the segments which George and Harold "write" themselves (with the bad spelling and all) were very limited.  And the story?  Well, "absurd" does pretty well describe it.  I can't say it was laugh-out-loud funny for me, but I can definitely see the appeal to the kids.

So the issues:
Potty humor.  Show me a little kid who doesn't love potty humor, and I'll show you a robot from the planet Dullness.  Seriously, if parents think their kids are learning potty humor from these books, they are deluded.

Disrespect for Authority: See above.  In fact, despite the boys being constantly in trouble, I don't find their behavior extreme (it was worst in the earliest books).  And they DO make the principal into a super-hero.  In many of the books, the boys do engage in pranks that we as parents our kids will not emulate.  I think that most kids, though they will laugh at the pranks, also understand the consequences (and Harold and George do suffer consequences for most of their pranks).  Oddly, there are no pranks in this book, only a desperate battle to save the universe with the boys working alongside Captain Underpants.

Deliberate use of misspelling.  This is actually limited to the "comic book" sections that the boys write themselves, which seems to me to provide readers with a) easy recognition that this is not the writing to emulate, and b) a chance to feel superior because frankly, nearly all the kids reading this can do better than that.  It's part of what's funny.  The bulk of the narration is fine.

Complete and utter absurdity.  I don't think this even deserves a response.  I like absurd.  Certainly it is so far over the top that there is no worry that any kids are going to mistake it for reality.  And the claim that we now know what killed the dinosaurs is pretty funny.

Oh, and I gather some parents claimed "nudity" was an issue.  I guess that's because Captain Underpants runs around in a pair of tighty-whiteys and a cape.  If a cartoon drawing of a rather stylized human in underwear is their idea of nudity, I hope these people never go to the beach.

My bottom line: when kids are making the at times difficult transition from reading to learn to read to reading for pleasure, if some potty humor and laughter at the expense of an authority figure gets them to read, go for it.  And for some suggestions on how to deal with various issues you may have with the books, check out this piece from NPR.  My biggest issue with the current addition to the series is that it ends in a blatant advertisement for the next book, which I thought was a bit tacky.  As opposed to tasteless, which defines the whole series, but in a good way.

15 comments:

  1. Rebecca, we need more librarians like you! Helping children learn to read for fun is priority number one, as far as I'm concerned.

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    1. I think it's incredibly important to help them to a point where they find the joy and escape that can come from a book. And the only way to get there is to read, read, read. So during that difficult time they need to be given pretty much whatever they like to read--whatever will make them read enough to get truly fluent. Obviously, I draw the line at the truly inappropriate (which, happily, is of no interest to most kids anyway--your typical 4th-grade male, anyway, isn't going to want to read 50 Shades), but mindless and stupid? Maybe okay, until they get to where they can read better stuff.

      My second son has pretty much tried to skip directly to reading solid adult books. I admire him for it, but I think it also has kept him from getting as much fun out of books as he should. Brain candy is OK!

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  2. I've always been the "if my kids will read it" go for it. That being said, I was always grateful we had books like The Littles, Amelia Bedelia, and Hank the Cow Dog. We missed this series and while not into banning books whatsoever or placing a moral judgement on them (read, read read!), I'm glad, honestly, it wasn't an option.

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    1. We loved Hank the Cowdog! In my opinion, a much better use of humor to get kids interested in reading, and my boys had patience for Hank for a lot longer than for Capn Undies.

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  3. I agree with you. Once these kids, that are reading these comics, mature enough they'll move on to something else that interests them more, anyway.

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  4. I have not looked at Captain Underpants in a while, my son is past that age now. But, I might take a 'looksee' again:-)

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    1. Well, I'm not really sure they are worth that :) Though if you are apt to have other parents wondering what you think, go for it. Or if you just need a reminder of how 10-year-olds think!

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  5. I've not read the books, but I've read your reviews and Rene at MDBookReviews in quick succession, and I think you've hit the nail on the head. My youngest brother would have loved them. At 40, he'd probably still have loved them! A healthy disregard for authority and a touch of the dodgy spelling didn't stop him being a valuable citizen and fighting for his country and it would have got him reading where the teachers had put him right off. Yes, my parent tore their hair out over their 'problem child', but I reckon books like this actually do more to help those ones back into society than any amount of moralising could do.
    my 2 cents :)

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    1. I think you're right, Jemima. And Harold & George may misbehave, but in the end they always do save the world. They are on the good-guy side, even if they can't follow all the rules. Are they really so different from all those lone-wolf agents in the movies?

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  6. Yay Rebecca! I couldn't agree more with your description of how this latest book is different from the earlier books. Perhaps Pilkey is responding to his critics? You nailed it on the head with your comments around the books' absurdity - that's exactly it! It's supposed to be absurd. Maybe as grown-ups we start losing its appreciation?! Great post!

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  7. Well, I'm the last person who should criticize books for absurdity!

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  8. How wonderful to get a librarian's opinion of these books. Given their popularity, I was tempted to look into them for my sons. I appreciate your thorough explanation of their content.

    Happy A to Z!

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    1. I certainly don't condemn them, and there are kids for whom they have definitely been the gateway drug to more reading :D But there were other books we liked more (I always recommend Hank the Cowdog to people whose boys are having trouble getting into fiction. They are funny, well-written, and have interest for adults as well as kids, without being at all hard to read).

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    2. I love that comment Rebecca: "the gateway drug to more reading" lol

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