Challenged: The Adventures of Captain Underpants

Pilkey, Dav. The Adventures of Captain Underpants. New York: Scholastic, 1997. Print.

Above image from

Dav Pilkey’s immensely popular Captain Underpants series has been a firm “favorite” on the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom’s Top Ten Most Challenged book lists for years. All 12 titles have been challenged or banned, some more vocally than others, but this review examines the book that started it all.

George and Harold are best friends at Jerome Horwitz Elementary School. Creative, spirited, and active, they create a comic series called Captain Underpants, and sell them at school. They also enjoy playing pranks on students and teachers, and have developed quite a reputation among the faculty at the school. Caught red-handed in a series of masterful pranks at a big school football game, “mean Mr. Krupp,” the principal, forces them to obey his every command or he will release the incriminating tapes to the football team, a victim of one of their pranks. Desperate, they send out for a 3-D Hypno Ring, and four-to-six-weeks later, they manage to hypnotize Mr. Krupp into thinking he is Captain Underpants, and switch the tape with another.  The Captain flies (falls) out the window looking for a crime to foil. He somehow manages to stop a bank robbery, but then finds himself kidnapped by jewel-stealing robots and in the lair of Dr. Diaper, who has a laser he intends to use to rule the world. The boys distract Dr. Diaper, destroy the robots and free Captain Underpants, who uses “wedgie power” (a pair of white briefs shot onto Dr. Diaper’s head) to escape. They bring Dr. Diaper to justice and throw water on the Captain to turn him back into Mr. Krupp. We learn at the end that, with the sound of a finger snap, Mr. Krupp turns back into Captain Underpants.

The Adventures of Captain Underpants is full of non-stop “action, thrills, laffs.” The two central characters, George and Harold, are pretty easily identified with if you’re a child– they’re energetic, bored, smart kids who feel like most of the adult world exists to crush their spirits. They do what they can to carve out their space in the midst of this injustice, and while they are troublemakers, they aren’t mean-spirited. Adults in the book are exaggerated symbols of grown-up oppression, and Mr. Krupp happens to be the meanest of them all. No doubt every child has felt the frustration of being a child in an adult’s world, and George and Harold tap into this, offering a silly, fun, fantastical way to work through some of that frustration.

Pilkey’s illustrations are wonderful comic-style drawings. His depictions of Mr. Krupp/ Captain Underpants (large, egg-shaped) and Dr. Diaper (extra short, balding, with a diaper) are quite funny. George and Harold are just cute little kids. Tthe illustrations are supportive of the text– and the text is written in extremely accessible (but not too simple) language, with lots of white space and usually no more than 12-15 lines per page.

The Captain Underpants series has been challenged or banned for a few reasons: partial nudity (partial– adults are in their underpants), offensive language (they refer to adults as “mean” and “old”), misbehavior (they play practical jokes, but no one gets hurt). There are misspellings (included is the boys’ latest installation of their Captain Underpants comic). There is an “extremely graphic violence” chapter in the middle of the book that asks readers to flip the pages to create an animation of George and Harold bonking robots on the head. (This chapter actually provides a wonderful reading break and hands-on interaction for young readers who need it– a brilliant idea!)

Did I mention it’s hilarious? Even if you don’t find potty humor funny, it’s hard to ignore Pilkey’s wickedly subversive writing– adults will find it hard not to chuckle knowingly at his silly portraits of adulthood. And kids of course love references to those things they’ve been taught were taboo. Adults stripped of their power (and hairpieces) and wearing their underwear, kids saving the day– what better way to attract those  elementary-level reluctant readers? What better way to attract boys, who are often turned off to reading at this age?

That said, it is definitely worth  nothing that there is no female presence in this first book. Will this turn off girls? (I don’t believe it will; I think the story is too much fun and the two boys too lovable.)

Perhaps Captain Underpants is so threatening to some adults because it IS challenging– gently, hilariously challenging the way adults and children interact, and giving children a voice within a seemingly unfair power structure. If it can get boys reading, and keep them reading, or if it sparks kids’ interest in comics, or writing and drawing them– or even if it  just gets them excited over a book, all this is just fine with me.