Children's Corner: Author Dav Pilkey's silly stories led to 'Captain Underpants'
Grappling with attention-deficit disorder from his earliest years, author Dav Pilkey constantly struggled in school. So he focused on doing two things he could do well -- drawing comics and being the class clown.
Of course, Mr. Pilkey's behavior didn't make him popular with teachers. They regularly ripped up his comics and told him to stop wasting his time creating "silly stories."
Fortunately, Mr. Pilkey, 46, didn't take his teachers' advice to heart. And, over the past 15 years, he has found fame and fortune with his "silly stories" for young readers starring a briefs-clad superhero named "Captain Underpants." The books, which are heavily illustrated by Mr. Pilkey himself, have an international following and have sold millions of copies.
More importantly, he has inspired kids around the world to enjoy reading books and to try creating their own comics. Every day, Mr. Pilkey receives copies of comics created by his eager young readers. He also gets emails from parents grateful for the way he engages their kids in reading -- even if there is a lot of potty humor involved. (Of course, there are also parents who loathe the books and have tried to ban them.)
Now he has just given kids and parents another reason to cheer with the publication of his ninth book in the best-selling "Captain Underpants" series. Titled "Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers" (Scholastic, $9.99, ages 7-10), this latest adventure is a prequel of sorts.
In the new book, Mr. Pilkey details the kindergarten days of George Beard and Harold Hutchins -- the two main kid characters in the "Captain Underpants" books -- and shows how they bonded in their efforts to defeat the school's sixth-grade bully, Kipper Krupp.
Kipper is the nephew of Mr. Krupp, the mean principal of Jerome Horwitz Elementary School, who has an alternate persona as Captain Underpants. All it takes is a snap of the fingers, and Mr. Krupp morphs into Captain Underpants. Pour water on his head, and he transforms back into Mr. Krupp, with no memory of his superhero exploits.
But George and Harold don't create "Captain Underpants" until the fourth grade. Because this new book takes place long before that, George and Harold have no superhero with magic powers to help them counter Kipper and his friends, who give wedgies to terrified younger students to make it easier to steal their lunch money.
The kindergarteners are favorite targets for Kipper and his gang until George and Harold decide they've had enough and decide to use their wits to come up with some clever pranks to destroy the power Kipper and his friends hold over other students.
"I didn't want to have George and Harold snap their fingers and have their problem solved by Captain Underpants," Mr. Pilkey said in a recent interview during a day of book-signings in the Washington, D.C., area. "I wanted them to have to think of ways to take care of the problem themselves."
While bullying is a particularly hot topic these days, Mr. Pilkey said he wasn't trying to tie into a trend, noting that all of the "Captain Underpants" books involve bullying.
"It's just that the bullies are usually the grown-ups," he said. "This time, the bullies are kids."
In person, Mr. Pilkey is quiet, self-effacing and even a bit shy. It's hard to imagine that he is the creator of these wacky books filled with toilet talk, wedgies and characters like the Purple Potty People, the Bionic Booger Boy and the Lunchroom Zombie Nerds.
Asked whether he's more like George or Harold, he says they represent different sides of his personality.
"I was shy and introverted like Harold sometimes, and at other times I was crazy, bouncing off the walls like George. I'm more like Harold now; I'm not as bouncy as I used to be."
Mr. Pilkey created the character of Captain Underpants when he was in the second grade. Because he was so disruptive in the classroom, teachers sent him out to the hallway and even put a desk out there for him. It was a perfect place for him to sit and draw comics.
High school was a low point, with his principal telling him that he would never amount to anything if he didn't do something besides write and draw comics.
"How delightful to prove him wrong," said Mr. Pilkey, whose first name is pronounced "Dave." He uses a misspelled version of it that was created when he worked at a Pizza Hut and was given a name badge that read "Dav."
Mr. Pilkey has no formal art training but won a Caldecott Honor in 1997 for his picture book, "The Paperboy." The Caldecott Medal is given annually by the American Library Association to the best-illustrated children's book; several honor books often are chosen.
But it's the comics-style art and the crazy antics of the "Captain Underpants" books that have most endeared Mr. Pilkey to young readers, who also love the several-page "flip-o-ramas" included in each book. By flipping the pages just right, readers can see characters "move."
Mr. Pilkey has another "Captain Underpants" book, "Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxes," coming out in January. And he's just finished a second book in another series, "Ook & Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future."
Asked if there are more "Captain Underpants" in his future, Mr. Pilkey said with a smile: "We'll see. There just might be more to write about."
First Published September 11, 2012 12:00 am