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Panel Torn Over Fate of 'Super Diaper Baby'

Some Riverside school committee members dislike the potty humor but oppose censorship.

June 05, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

Super Diaper Baby's adventures continued Wednesday afternoon as parents, teachers and administrators contemplated banning a feces-fighting storybook character from the Riverside Unified School District.

Since a student's grandmother filed a formal complaint last month asking that the district remove Dav Pilkey's "The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby" from its libraries and classrooms, the seven-member committee charged with determining the book's fate has digested the tome's 125 pages of potty humor, purposely misspelled words and -- critics say -- overall disregard for authority.

But with a week left before they vote, committee members acknowledged Wednesday that they are torn between disliking the book's scatological story line and liking its ability to attract 25 million readers nationwide. Members said they cringed at its spelling errors but oppose censorship and anything that violates freedom of speech.

"At first blush, I don't want to see this book become a model for students," said Betsy Schmechel, a secondary education specialist in English and language arts. "But I also support the freedom to read. That's the dilemma."

Written and illustrated in a comic-book style, the story follows Super Diaper Baby with Deputy Doo Doo, an evil piece of excrement. The book is part of the author's best-selling "Captain Underpants" series, which overflows with toilet talk.

Pam Santi of Riverside filed a formal complaint when she spotted her second-grade grandson drawing Deputy Doo Doo after he had read the book at his school, John F. Kennedy Elementary School. She said the book has no literary merit and encourages bad behavior.

For the school district, the issue is less clear. "Super Diaper Baby" is not required reading and cost nothing through book fair drives for leisure reading in classrooms and libraries.

"I don't like the idea of poop being in the story," said Sue Tavaglione, a parent and committee member. "But it is pretty creative, and a lot of students like reading it. I think I'd have more of a problem if students were forced to read it."

Tavaglione said she also has problems with the spelling, but suggested a creative exercise for parents and their children: "You can tell them to find all the misspellings in the book and then have them correct them."

Earlier this school year, Riverside Unified discussed and denied two parental attempts to ban Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" and Sandra Benitez's "A Place Where the Sea Remembers."

The district receives a few complaints each year about books with dark themes, foul language and sexual content, said librarian Christine Allen, who heads the committee deciding the fate of "Super Diaper Baby." Since 1989, when Allen began tracking complaints, the only request granted was seven years ago, when officials removed Robert Cormier's "The Chocolate War" from middle school libraries because of profanity and a masturbation scene.

Last year, the Chicago-based American Library Assn. tracked 515 challenges to remove or restrict publications. Pilkey's "Captain Underpants" books landed on the group's list as the sixth most frequently challenged book. The Harry Potter series ranked first.

In a prepared statement, Pilkey's publisher, Scholastic Inc., defended the series, noting that it has won several awards and receives hundreds of letters each week from parents and teachers praising the books "for transforming [children] into eager readers."

Greg Taber's fifth-grade son is one of those children. "He struggled with reading," said the Riverside engineer, who attended Wednesday's meeting in support of "Super Diaper Baby." "To be honest, he did not like reading anything until Dav Pilkey's books. Now he reads other books."

Removing "Super Diaper Baby" requires a majority vote of the district committee. Because it is not mandatory reading, the group's decision is not subject to school board approval. However, if Santi wants to appeal, the case would move to the Riverside County Office of Education and, if still unsettled, the state Department of Education.

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