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What Do Harper Lee And Captain Underpants Have In Common?


Several weeks ago, the social media world, or the country, or someone out there, celebrated “Banned Books Week.” Essentially, reading and promoting books that have been banned by schools and libraries in the past.

I’m not into starting political arguments on this blog, so I won’t throw out the censorship card. But I will say I’m all for a parent having the right to determine what his or her child reads. I know when my boy gets a little older, I’ll keep an eye on that.

But if you judge the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books from 2000-2009, it’s easy to see that some parents, school administrators, and librarians have lost their collective mind. Here are just a few books that made the ALA’s top 100 list of most challenged books.

Harry Potter (ranked #1): Seriously? I don’t get it. My guess is that Potter is on the list because of “witchcraft” and “wizardry.” And, you know what, it makes total sense. After I read these books, I went out and bought a wand and a robe and an owl and practiced hexing my neighbor’s dog because it barks all night.

These days, I moonlight as a wizard and have been crafting an invisibility cloak in my spare time. If it wouldn’t have been for J.K. Rowling, I would’ve never become the wizard I am today. Stupefy!

Captain Underpants (ranked #13): An overweight fourth grader saves the world in “tightie whities” pulled up to his chest and a cape. Come on, how awesome is that?

According to the always trustworthy Wikipedia, though, the book “was banned in some schools for insensitivity and being unsuited to age group, as well as encouraging children to disobey authority.” As we used to say back in the mid-90s, someone needs to take a chill pill.

To Kill A Mockingbird (ranked #19): This is a classic case of not being able to see the forest because of the trees. Harper Lee’s classic is usually challenged in schools on grounds of racial epithets, racist characters, etc.

Yes, there are racist characters in To Kill A Mockingbird, just like there’s an evil emperor in I, Claudius and a psychopath murderer in Blood Meridian. They’re called antagonists, the bad guys. Evil does exist in the world, and it should also be portrayed realistically in novels. To challenge To Kill A Mockingbird on any grounds is ludicrous.

Bridge to Terabithia (Ranked #28): Another banned kids book. Why? I haven’t read this one, but I’m sure it has something to do with overly-sensitive parents. The book was inspired by The Chronicles of Narnia—what could possibly be wrong with it? And, for once in this post, I’m not being sarcastic.

Slaughterhouse Five (ranked #46): Most parents don’t like the language in this one. Plus, some don’t like the anti-war ideals of the book. It’s easy for me to say because my one-year-old’s reading list right now includes Corduroy, Elmo, and a bunch of pop-up books about barnyard animals, but I hope I don’t parent out of fear when he gets older.

In other words, I hope my wife and I don’t keep him in a bubble. I hope we’re not so insecure in the beliefs and faith we pass down to him that we view anyone or any book that espouses another ideal as a threat. In my opinion, too many parents equate learning about something with approving of it. That’s two totally different things.

Friday Night Lights (ranked #89): Huh? Was the scene where the running back tears his ACL too graphic?

My guess is that probably 95% of the parents who challenged these books read less than a page or two of the contested novel. So frustrating. You see the “N word” used out of context, and suddenly you think Harper Lee is trying to teach kids to be racists? What?

Some others on the list include Of Mice and Men, The Giver, Beloved, Brave New World, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Kite Runner, Fahrenheit 451, and the always-present Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Take a look at the entire list.

Are you surprised that any of these books have been challenged and/or banned? If you have kids, where do you draw the line (or do you draw a line?) on what they read?

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52 Comments Post a comment
  1. My son, now 11, loved Captain Underpants when he was 5. It is gross boy humor (sorry boys) but I’m one of those moms that’s just happy to see a book in his hand and if he’s laughing and smiling even better! Great post!

    November 11, 2011
    • Captain Underpants is out to save the world and some people want to do nothing more than bring him down! Glad you’re son is a supporter.

      November 11, 2011
  2. Dominick Sabalos #

    Bridge to Terabithia is apparently challenged on the grounds that it might promote magic or non-Christian religion, that the main character says “Lord” sometimes when he isn’t praying, and (my personal favourite) that “it contains death as a plot point”. It’s not exactly Last Exit to Brooklyn.

    Looking through the list, the one that surprises me is A Wrinkle in Time. It’s a lovely little book, and seems extraordinarily unobjectionable.

    November 11, 2011
    • I would think the other problem in this book is that one of the main characters, a tween character, dies an accidental death. That might be troubling to some sensitive parents who do not want to explain death to their kids.

      November 11, 2011
      • But then how does that explain the Lion King movie? My daughter who will turn 6 next year saw Lion King and was disturbed by Mufasa’s death.

        I thought this was a great opportunity to explain that people can and do die and “the circle of life” concept.

        I don’t understand why death is made to be such a monstrous thing. If explained off well by a parent, children do understand and it is so much better than being suddenly exposed to the death of a relative without knowing what it all means (I know it happened to me).

        I would have thought reading about it makes it even less painful than watching a movie where a main character dies.

        But, then nothing on that book list made any sense to me.

        I would forbid my daughter to read violent, porn, or books that demean particular sections of society…but these books definitely do not belong in that category.

        November 14, 2011
        • Dominick Sabalos #

          Friends of mine who have had kids say that it’s good to explain death early on and in detail, as this makes threatening them with it much more effective.

          November 14, 2011
        • When I was a wee lad, not quite a teen, my parents took me to a real-life fantasy movie about a squirrel. As the movie progressed, I was exposed to death in the deep woods (and maybe even some animal-on-animal noshing). My parents explained that a Walt Disney movie always includes a somewhat unsettling death scene and that was Disney’s way of offsetting the incredible silliness and sweetness of most of his movies. I believe they called it The Bambi Syndrome.

          At that time in the 1950s I considered this proposition and decided it was fundamentally true, at least in the Walt Disney movies I had seen so far. Does it still hold true?

          November 14, 2011
    • Bridge was one of the first books I read as a kid where someone was killed and it was a huge blow to me. I didn’t realize main characters could be bumped off until then. Still, that’s kind of the point, and not a bad lesson to learn.

      November 11, 2011
      • @Mike: That’s interesting. It does seem to be valid. I think it’s a good lesson for kids to learn that life is not all sweet.

        @Dominick: I don’t know that I would go as far as your friends :D. But, my daughter does know that if she runs onto the road she can get hit by a car and die, if she jumps into the deep end of a swimming pool, she will drown and die.

        A little fear is a good thing

        November 15, 2011
  3. Some of my daughters’ friends (when at primary, ie, 4-11 years) complained that their children:
    (1) read Enid Blyton (classic British kids’ storyteller) which was gender-stereotypical and thus bad.
    (2) re-read stories too often which wasn’t keeping them progressing on the ridiculous (that’s my judgment) reading age score chart.
    (3) rejected the Narnia books for their kids because they could only see it as a parable about God.V silly.

    I’m sorry to tell you that I’m no longer friends with those parents.But that was silly: as parents we all try to do our best, we just have different ways of doing it. I love your post, great mockery, but I also think we all need to be a bit more tolerant especially as we run into greater financial meltdown and climate change challenges – how else will we be able to ensure neighbourhood co-operation when the chips are down?

    PS Captain Underpants and Horrid Henry are wonderful characters for children. I love watching kids giggle as they read them.

    November 11, 2011
    • I agree. If kids are reading, that’s a good thing. Parents shouldn’t get their underpants in a wad over a comical character like Captain Underpants.

      November 11, 2011
  4. Curious list. My oldest (HS Senior) is currently reading Banned Book #15, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, for her English class. In fact, several of these books have come home to be read for class (Fahrenheit 452, Bless Me Umatilla etc).

    I wonder why Tropic of Cancer or Lolita aren’t on this list. My bookshelf recently banned both…..

    November 11, 2011
    • I guess those books are so off the radar that no teacher even attempts to get their students reading them, so as not to have to deal with the scorn of parents and administrators.

      November 11, 2011
  5. Teresa #

    Now a book on the list named The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, SHOULD be banned. Haha. What a hoot. I’ll have to find that one.

    Very surprised to see Maya Angelou on the list – still. Had to see if the list was left over from some dark age. Glad to see that Where the Wild Things Are is no longer on there.

    November 11, 2011
  6. I completely agree with you about not parenting out of fear and learning is not the same as approving. If you shield your kids from everything, how will they learn to figure things out for themselves? Of course there are boundaries, but you know what I’m saying. (Not being a parent, though, I’m 500% sure that is soooo much easier said than done!) I just say this from experience of growing up with parents who protected me but didn’t smother me, and now as a grown adult, I thank them for it.

    Friday Night Lights?! I read it in college, and it was one of my favorite books for quite a while. Actually liked it so much better than the movie. I don’t remember the “bad” stuff in it. Maybe it’s just not appropriate for a 10 year old, so then they ban the book from all of humanity. Crazy.

    November 11, 2011
    • Crazy indeed.

      November 11, 2011
  7. I love to hear your comments on banned books. I will personally ban books from my children if they are not emotionally prepared to handle the issues that are raised, however, I would never ban the books from a library. Parents just need to be involved in their children’s lives and take on the job of parenting. Some of the banned books are among my favorites.

    November 11, 2011
    • Agreed. It’s the parent’s job.

      November 11, 2011
  8. When I was a freshman in college, I went back to my high school because an over-cautious conservative board member was planning to ban certain books from the school curriculum, four of them being Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Color Purple, The Things they Carried, and FREAKONOMICS!! I wasn’t surprised at all to find out that this woman hadn’t read ANY of the books and instead, decided to take scenes and wording out of context only to fuel more ignorance with her agenda. It’s funny how many people have actually read the books they seeming label as “irrelevant,” “insensitive,” or “inappropriate.”

    FYI: *SPOILER ALERT* Bridge to Terabithia contains a death scene of a major character which may have spurred certain individuals to ban the book. My girlfriend read it as an 11-year-old and I read it as a 21-year-old and we both walked away with the same lessons which is a testament to the author for realistically and tactfully portraying a painful situation in an appropriate light…but then again, that’s just my opinion.

    November 11, 2011
  9. You said: “You see the “N word” used out of context, and suddenly you think Harper Lee is trying to teach kids to be racists? What?”

    The reasons for wanting books to be banned are, of course, varied and subject to changes in the mores of society. To Kill a Mockingbird was not banned because the parents were worried about their kids becoming racists but rather because the novel showed a black man that was persecuted by good god-fearing white folks and defended by a white man against his own kind. I imagine that if the black man had been shown to be the real bad man, the book could have had all the N-words it wanted and would not been banned originally.

    Another book, Huckleberry Finn, is in a similar situation. At first the concept of a white boy being intimate friends with a black man and even helping the black man to escape from his rightful slave owner was reason enough to ban the book. All of the N-words were not a problem until much later.

    Here’s a literary consideration: I understand that Huckleberry Finn is being edited to remove all the racial allusions and N-words so that it will be presentable for young, impressionable readers. I suppose that would satisfy those parents who insist of screening what a child reads, but it destroys the literary value of the novel and undercuts the author’s themes which require those references to race and slavery. Maybe they should make Jim a white boy from Cleveland that likes to make rafts?

    Should political correctness be allowed to trump literary or historic value?

    November 11, 2011
  10. Interesting list, and comments from all. I am currently reading two collected series of books, the Carl Petersen Quartet (Bulldog Drummond) by Sapper, and the collected Richard Hannay stories by John Buchan. Both are set either just before or after the First World War, and contain many references that people today could find racist or bigoted. However, they (and their characters) were of their time, and I see no reason to edit out anything that the authors said. If I had children (I don’t), I certainly wouldn’t ban them from reading them.

    Mike asked “Should political correctness be allowed to trump literary or historic value?”. In my opinion, never. If you really dislike what an author has said, that’s fine. Authors have the right to say what they want, even if I don’t like it.

    November 11, 2011
  11. I can’t imagine why “Bridge to Terabitha” would be banned. I’ve read it – granted it has been about 15 years ago – but I don’t remember anything in the book that was offensive.

    November 11, 2011
    • Any book representing a fantasy world or the use of magic is automatically rejected by the dominant religious organizations, especially christian churches but it’s not limited to christians. I believe the reasoning is that any mysticism not coming from the church must be coming from the other side. Ridiculous, right?

      Perhaps this should be an all or nothing situation and if The Bridge to Terabitha is banned, all other books based on myth and mysticism should also be banned, no matter what religion or magic they might represent. No Harry Potter, no Bible!

      But my position is no restrictions; no banned books; it’s all fiction!

      November 11, 2011
  12. I’m in full agreement with you about being aware of what my kids are reading and saying “no” if I think they shouldn’t read a particular book at the time they’d like to read it. That doesn’t fall under the category of censorship, in my opinion. What I do have a problem with is other people attempting to police what I or my kids read. You worry about yourself and your kids, and I’ll worry about mine.

    November 11, 2011
    • It’s a tired old argument but I have had the same response since my daughter was born and she’s a professor at the University now.

      I believe three things about monitoring a child’s reading: First, if a book deals in subjects the child is not ready for she will normally lose interest rapidly and generally will not understand what she is reading anyway, and if she does, then the worst outcome will be the parent having to answer some difficult or sticky questions; Second, far be it from me to put myself up as the judge of what my child should read at any time in their life; which leads into the Third consideration suggesting that any efforts to control a child’s reading may in fact be causing more damage to the child’s development than the reading would have if the child had been left to work things out herself.

      So let the kids read whatever interests them and give them the freedom to thrive intellectually. The less parents mess with kid’s heads, the better things will turn out.

      November 11, 2011
      • “The less parents mess with kid’s heads, the better things will turn out.”

        Amen to that!

        November 11, 2011
      • From personal experience, I did not stop reading some books that disturbed me as a child, and they messed me up for a while. I didn’t need to ask questions because I understood what was going on in the books. They gave me nightmares for months. In hindsight, I wish my parents had told me they were off-limits for my age. I know how sensitive my daughter is about certain things, so if she asks about a book that I know is going to affect her sleeping habits, I’m going to say “no.” I will also explain why and tell her that she can read it when she’s a bit older. She always understands and trusts my judgment.

        November 11, 2011
  13. I am always amazed when context is over looked and books pointing out the wrongs and ills of the world are banned in response.

    November 11, 2011
  14. I don’t believe any book should be censored. All books have the right to be read, and every person has the right to read whatever book they choose. It’s a step away from burning books. “…but he who destroys a good book, kills Reason itself, kills the Image of God…” John Milton… “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.” John Morley… “Every burned book enlightens the world.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

    November 11, 2011
  15. Buring Bridges sent me here. Thank you Chris. Posted the link on my Facebook page. My when Good Kids Do Bad Things–was banned from religious book stores because one paragraph suggested masturbation was not a sin, but possibly a way to slow down the rush to intercourse. My generation out of fear of pregnancy–no really reliable contraception way back then–practiced mutual masturbation in the many lover’s lanes dotting the small town landscapes of my youth.

    From my lover’s lane adventures with my one true love, I learned a great deal about my body, my first true love’s body and eventually that translated into foreplay for the real thing and has certainly helped my marriage to another one true love last.for over forty years.

    Think today’s kids really miss out on the foreplay aspect of love making. But then I am just a Wicked Old One. I am counting on the novel I am writing to not only be banned but lead me to being the focus of a fatwah. Great publicity.

    Stay strong it is a crazy world out there and good luck with your kids.

    November 11, 2011
    • Wow. I think I’m blushing. Anyway, thanks for commenting?

      November 11, 2011
  16. Came here by way of Chris at Bridges Burning – one of my favourite blogs. As a Mother, I always felt that if I gave my children nothing but a love of reading, I would have given them riches beyond measure. Magic? Tragedy? Silliness? Horror? Adventure? Fairy Tales? Biographies? Whatever – read on!!!

    November 11, 2011
  17. The title of this blog certainly grabbed my attention. As a fan of Harper Lee AND the Captain Underpants series, you peaked my curiosity…what on earth could these two have in common? Lo and behold, the answer to that question befuddled me. Captain Underpants banned? Must have been banned in Boston…everything else was at one time or another.

    Captain Underpants got my son to read something other than “How-to” books. He was reading at an 9th grade level when he was 7, but I couldn’t get him to read fiction. Thanks to that brilliant man, Dav Pilkey, my son now reads fiction voraciously. I was so tired of seeing him with a “Beginning Programming for Dummies” book tucked under his arm as he headed off to Cub Scout meetings. Such a geek…

    I rarely refused to allow my son to read a book he selected from my bookshelves or from the library, but there were times when I’d ask him to wait for a couple years because the book wasn’t “age appropriate”. Books on the bottom three shelves in our home library were his to read at any time, others higher up needed parental approval. He always honored that system.

    He read “The Giver” when he was 12, read and loved “Slaughterhouse Five” when he was in high school. He also read “Lolita” and “Tropic of Cancer” in high school – since we discussed each book before and after he read them, those two books made him a little (ok – VERY) uncomfortable, but I think he’s a better writer because of the variety of books he read (and he is a marvelous writer and editor now).

    Like me, he has a special affinity for Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut – authors of books on “banned” lists. The fact that some self-righteous believer in all things politically correct would have the audacity to attempt to “improve” on Mark Twain’s writings galls me to no end. Hang ‘em, I say! Hang them all! No censoring allowed in my world!

    November 11, 2011
    • Amen!

      November 11, 2011
    • Great thoughts. I totally agree with all of that.

      November 11, 2011
  18. ARGHH!! This is one of the many things that makes me angry! I completely agree with Tales Untangled and several others: If your child is not ready to read a certain book then that is a parent’s right and decision.

    There was local news coverage of parents of a 10 year old who went straight to the media – bypassing teachers or school administrators – because they insisted that the book assigned to their child’s class to read, Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, was offensive. In one line in the book, Mr. (Pa) Ingalls refers to a black man as an “old darkey”.

    Is calling a black man an “old darkey” offensive now – ABSOLUTELY!!! Was it in the 1800′s – well unfortunately no. Actually that was a kind reference back then. We can’t alter history just because we don’t like it.

    And now I really, really want to read The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things.

    November 11, 2011
  19. Here via your post on Michael Hyatt’s blog today. I LOVE this blog, the reading you’re doing, etc. Have you ever read The Know-It All by AJ Jacobs? It’s a writer’s endeavor to read through the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I know you can’t read it right now (kinda booked in that dept.), but it’s hilarious (and a bit crude, language-wise)!
    Anyway-I really wanted to say I CANNOT believe Junie B Jones is on that ALA list. That in & off itself is HILARIOUS. I will admit that I had a snobby attitude toward the series because of Junie’s bad attitude & language (a Kindergartner using hate, stupid, and dumb?! Shocking) But, a 1st grade teacher showed me the way & they are LOL hysterical.
    Enough! Just had to get that out.

    November 11, 2011
  20. You should know the ALA list is faked, at least the one from 2010:

    By the way, no book has been banned in the USA for about half a century:

    November 12, 2011
    • Interesting. It says the top 10 was possibly faked, not the entire list. Nonetheless, a lot of these books are on lists from previous years, so it’s mostly a moot point.

      And I know that the USA hasn’t banned books, but this lists refers to books by banned by libraries and local schools, and that’s happened plenty of times.

      November 12, 2011
  21. As always, Robert, a wonderful commentary on a poirnant topic.

    I am 100% against banning books (do the pictures of Nazi’s tossing the books and Bibles into flames paint a picture of a healthy, national well-being?) It’s a shame that we are a fear-based society, rather than a society open to various artistry and education. We should allow these books to be imaginative adventures, poignant lessons, and sometimes a type of warning, but to ban them is insane to me – and it reveals an amazing level of fear and paranoia in the “system” that fears allowing children to read something challenging to stimulate growth.

    Love the blog, as always! :)

    November 12, 2011
    • I understand your concern for the level of fear and fear mongering in this country, but how much of what we might call censorship is actually, as someone else on the BLOG suggested, one group of people using fear or political correctness as a way to control other people?

      There are several real-life examples of this: How many people have you heard of that preach against homosexuality and then turn out to be homosexuals themselves? How many proponents of family values have been caught cheating on their spouses? How many upright, moral citizens have been discovered to be closet pornographers or collectors of pornography?

      Whether it’s fear or hypocrisy, the reasons behind censorship are usually control and power.

      You bring up the image of Nazi book burnings. John Adams long ago gave us the formula for maintaining our freedoms: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” So the implication is that tyranny will fail as long as the people are knowledgable—reading is certainly a dangerous adversary to tyranny.

      Have you noticed that knowledge is being undermined more and more by restrictions, propaganda, misinformation, and far too many outright lies?

      November 12, 2011
  22. kmesa #

    Hi there,
    Love the blog – as always, your cheeky tone makes a serious topic less heavy. My son is almost three, and as much as I’d love to shelter him from all things bad, I can’t. Literature is such a great teaching tool about life and the many challenges that we may face. Banning literature is not acceptable. I agree with others who have responded that it is up to us, as parents, to judge the emotional readiness of our children and to permit reading selection accordingly. When the time comes that he is reading a particularly challenging text, it will be up to me and his father to guide him through it and help him learn from it. Kind of in the same way that television or movies should be monitored and discussed. Banning things just creates more curiousity about them – better to expose them to it responsibly, not hide it in fear.

    November 12, 2011
    • Great thoughts. Agree with you absolutely. Thanks for reading the blog!

      November 12, 2011
  23. Looks like you raised some hackles with this one. I can’t help but think that with Harry Potter it comes down to popularity. More kids reading, and wanting to read it, leads to more challenges. In about grade 7 a friend’s parents wouldn’t allow her to read Sweet Valley Twins. While I take issue with Sweet Valley, I would think a conversation or two would be a more effective route, as you say. Don’t know if you care at all for comedy, but Louis C.K. talks about this in relation to reading Tom Sawyer to his daughters, particularly where Huckleberry Finn enters the scene.

    Your sarcastic posts are my favourite!

    November 12, 2011
    • Sarcasm is my specialty, I guess. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not?

      November 12, 2011
      • It would be best to recognize those posts as ironic, not sarcastic. Sarcasm is mean-spirited and not welcome in most discourse.

        “The difference between satire and sarcasm is the difference between surgery and butchery.” — Edward Nichols

        November 12, 2011
  24. I’m sure it will be different when/if I have kids, but my general philosophy is that books should be read. Sometimes you’re not ready, but I won’t withhold something from my kids because they’ll try and find it elsewhere. I have two close cousins whose parents refuse to let them read Harry Potter (they’re Catholic) and all I’ve wanted to do for the past few years is buy that for them for Christmas, but I’ve restrained myself, but they’re coming up on their teens very fast.

    November 14, 2011

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The First 30: A Look Back | 101 Books
  2. Harper Lee Lays The Smack Down | 101 Books
  3. A Discussion on Book Censorship « Youth Literature Reviews
  4. “Let us welcome controversial books and authors.” | 101 Books
  5. A Brilliant Experiment In Censorship | 101 Books

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