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Elementary Schools Warn of “Controversial” Same-Sex Relationship in Captain Underpants Book

Some of my fondest memories from elementary school took place at the Scholastic Book Fair, the traveling marketplace of kids’ literature that would set up shop in the library every year. I loved perusing each and every shelf, figuring out what books I’d beg my mom to buy me. My brother especially treasured the Captain Underpants series, and so I started reading them too.The Scholastic Book Fair is still alive and well, and so is the Captain Underpants series. In fact, the books are evolving with the times; the latest installment, Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-a-lot, discusses how one of the main male characters grows up to marry another man.Eleven-year-old me would have been delighted. But not surprisingly, the mere mention of a same-sex relationship has some schools taking a step back from the book, with reactions ranging from warnings about “controversial” content to pulling the book entirely.

Some of my fondest memories from elementary school took place at the Scholastic Book Fair, the traveling marketplace of kids’ literature that would set up shop in the library every year. I loved perusing each and every shelf, figuring out what books I’d beg my mom to buy me. My brother especially treasured the Captain Underpants series, and so I started reading them too.

The Scholastic Book Fair is still alive and well, and so is the Captain Underpants series. In fact, the books are evolving with the times; the latest installment, Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-a-lot, discusses how one of the main male characters grows up to marry another man.

Eleven-year-old me would have been delighted. But not surprisingly, the mere mention of a same-sex relationship has some schools taking a step back from the book, with reactions ranging from warnings about “controversial” content to pulling the book entirely.

For example, Arborwood Elementary School in Monroe, Michigan isn’t offering the book at its Scholastic fair at all. Rockford Public Schools in Rockford, Michigan is keeping the book on the shelves, but superintendent Dr. Michael Shibler sent a letter to parents explaining the themes they would encounter in the book.

“My only goal right now is to be completely transparent with parents,” said Dr. Shibler, “and if in fact they want to purchase this book at a book fair, then they in fact can do so, but they’re going to be informed to this potential controversy.”

Shibler’s letter might have been more comprehensive if he’d included some stats from GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey, which shows that school climates improve for LGBT students when they’re introduced to diverse characters and LGBT themes in school curriculum (full disclosure: I work at GLSEN).

From the latest edition of the survey:

Many experts in multicultural education believe that a curriculum that is inclusive of diverse groups — including culture, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation — instills a belief in the intrinsic worth of all individuals and in the value of a diverse society. Including LGBT-related issues in the curriculum in a positive manner may make LGBT students feel like more valued members of the school community, and it may also promote more positive feelings about LGBT issues and persons among their peers, thereby resulting in a more positive school climate.

An LGBT-inclusive curriculum may encourage students to speak up when they encounter anti-LGBT language and bullying. Although overall rates of students’ intervention in homophobic remarks were low, students in schools with an inclusive curriculum reported that other students were more than twice as likely to intervene most or all of the time as students in schools without an inclusive curriculum… Peer acceptance, along with connections to school staff, may play a role in how LGBT students feel about their school. We found that students in schools with an inclusive curriculum reported higher levels of school belonging.

Even if students weren’t reading Captain Underpants for English class, they still could benefit from having the book around, especially if they identify as LGBT or have same-sex parents. Back in Rockford, the superintendent seems to be toeing the line between appeasing potentially angry parents and allowing kids to pick up whatever book they want from the book fair:

Dr. Shibler isn’t putting politics into his decision but feels the best route to take is to allow parents the option to buy or not buy — simple as that.

“I do know there are some people that would find that inappropriate for their children to read, so let the parent make that decision,” he said. “I’m not trying to pass judgement on anything. I’m just saying, I’m going to inform you as a parent so you make the decision whether you want to buy this book at the book fair for your child.”

Politics or not, the data is there: Diverse and inclusive literature is good for kids. We’re reaching a point where soon every school will have at least one student with same-sex parents, and it’s about time we give these kids and their peers characters they can relate to. And if you’re going to send a positive message about acceptance, why not do it through the goofiest, most approachable book series there is?

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