D. HUSAR: Popular children's series heads challenged book list

Posted: Apr. 24, 2014 7:37 pm Updated: Jul. 18, 2014 10:15 am

One of the most challenged books in the nation sits on the bookshelf in my household.

It's a favorite of the third-grader.

The American Library Association recently published its annual "State of the Libraries" report, which included its list of works most frequently "challenged" last year at schools and libraries.

Topping the list was Dav Pilkey's "Captain Underpants" best-selling picture book series -- just like it did in 2012 -- for reasons including "offensive language."

Others in the top five were "The Bluest Eye," Toni Morrison's first novel; Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian;" E.L. James' explicit "Fifty Shades of Grey;" and Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games."

Captain Underpants' ranking took me by surprise.

I've read several of the books in the series, or listened to them being read, and heard the giggles inspired by the adventures of George Beard and Harold Hutchins. The books are silly, with humor geared to elementary-school age readers, and funny pictures that appeal to the third-grader.

The book series is a popular choice in the children's department at the Quincy Public Library.

"It's the kind of humor that children understand," said Nancy Dolan, the library's executive director. "It's something relative to them. It's just fun for them. There's nothing immoral or indecent about it in any way."

And "heavens yes," Beth Riley said, the books are on the shelf at the library at Pikeland Community School in Pittsfield.

"They're some of the most-often checked-out books," said Riley, who has worked in the library since PCS opened in 1996. "It's funny. It may be a little irreverent, but they're kids."

Pilkey said in a statement issued by his publisher, Scholastic Inc., and quoted in an Associated Press story that he found it surprising "that a series with no sex, no nudity, no drugs, no profanity and no more violence than a Superman cartoon has caused such an uproar. Of course, only a tiny percentage of adults are complaining. Kids love the books, and fortunately most parents and educators do, too."

The idea of challenging a book is nothing new for wannabe critics -- or for libraries.

"We try not to censor," Dolan said. "I may not choose to read one of those titles, but someone else might."

Dolan said the library rarely has any books challenged.

"When we do, we look at the book itself, ask the person what their reasoning is and generally what we tell them is it's the parents' responsibility to determine what their children read," Dolan said. "We don't want to be the parent. We want it to be their choice, to have the freedom to read what they choose."

Under PCS policy, for example, young adult titles are limited to seventh- and eighth-grade students. "If a sixth-grader wants to read one, they bring a note from home. It's the parent's job to say whether or not they want their kid reading a certain level of book," Riley said. "My job is to get the right book in the hands of each kid, so they will want to read."

The growing popularity of some "children's" books may spur even more challenges.

The "Hunger Games" series has been widely read by adults, and "in the past, young adult books didn't reach that broad of an audience. There's a lot more attention given to them because of that," Dolan said.

Ultimately, though, it's up to each reader -- or each reader's parents -- to decide what's appropriate.

"We're not trying to change anyone's values," Dolan said. "We're trying to serve everyone's needs."