A FEW OTHER EVENTS FOR
JANUARY 2:

  • Happy birthday Jean Little (From Anna) and Lynda Barry (The Good Times Are Killing Me).
  • It’s the birth date of Crosby Bonsall (1921–1995), The Case of the Scaredy Cats, Piggle; and of Isaac Asimov (1920–1992), Foundation series.
  • Happy birthday Georgia, which became the fourth U.S. state in 1788. Read Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia by Barbara O’Connor.
  • In 1959, Luna 1, the first spacecraft to reach the vicinity of the moon, is launched by the U.S.S.R. Read Beautiful Moon: Bella Luna by Dawn Jeffers, illustrated by Bonnie Leick and The Moon is La Luna by Jay M. Harris, illustrated by Matthew Cordell.

Today is set aside to “Run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.” The concept behind the day, and the phrase, is to get people to try out a new idea. But often for children, these sayings take on literal meanings, such as in Jerry Spinelli’s Who Ran My Underwear Up a Flagpole.

For me today, January 2 is a day for a new idea—a day of surrender. I have avoided talking about Captain Underpants for thirteen long years. Male friends have teased me about it. Male journalists decried the fact that I did not include it in 100 Best Books for Children. Even when I borrowed the book from the Westwood Public Library, one of the librarians said, “I never thought I would see you check this out.”

But while I have been avoiding this book, the Captain Underpants series have sold more than forty million copies, they have made children who think they hate books become readers, and they have made the author a household name. One of the standing jokes in publishing is that if you want to create a bestseller for children you should include flatulence, bodily functions, or underwear in the title. Comedic genius Dav Pilkey knew this a long time before publishers discovered it. Still in touch with the kind of child that he was—“getting into trouble for pulling pranks, cracking jokes, and making silly comic books”—he invented his famous character in second grade. Fortunately, he didn’t listen to the teacher who told him to straighten up “because you can’t spend the rest of your life making silly books.” As an adult he returned to that character—Captain Underpants.

In the first book in the series, The Adventures of Captain Underpants, published in 1997, readers meet the two anti-heroes George Beard and Harold Hutchins. The two BFF’s find endless ways to create mayhem and end up spending more time with the principal, Mr. Krupp, than their teachers. After buying a 3-D Hypno-Ring, they hypnotize Mr. Krupp, causing him to run around town in his underpants and cape because he believes himself to be Captain Underpants.

The book contains so much silly, even gross, humor and action-filled drawings that young readers finish an entire book without meaning to. So if you know a young reader, ages six through ten, who thinks books have to be boring, you might as well surrender. Your solution will be the ever-growing series—“lots of fun, lots of laffs”—first created in the mind of a prank-playing second grader. Today I am running Captain Underpants up the flagpole. We’ll see if anyone salutes him.

Here’s a page from The Adventures of Captain Underpants:


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Originally posted January 2, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Adventure, Humor, Imagination, School
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Adventures of Captain Underpants
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COMMENTS

  1. G.Perry says:

    When the Higher Power of Lucky came out, I asked my branch librarians what all the uproar was about. They explained about that “S” word. (Nothing shocking. A bit crude perhaps.) and though i’ve seen the cover of Captain Underpants, I’ve not read it. I have however observed when the book is picked up in a book store, I see people laugh at the title.

    While I don’t want to see children’s literature pushed into the smutty / tasteless realm,I think there’s a fine line between basic childhood humor, which all kids hear at school by the way, and abject crudeness.

    I am however reminded yet again of Stephen King. I’ve only read one of his books, (His fiction writing does not interest me.) and that was a non-fiction book called On Writing, which is outstanding. (You do have to get by Steve’s occasionally potty-mouth unfortunately.)

    And then there is that dog with flatulence book. I think it has been successful but I’m completely uninformed by about that book.

    So, as an adult, I cannot help being dazzled by the amazing success of both King and Dav Pilkey.I would love the opportunity of knowing both of them as writers. Of course, that goes for every author on any of Anita’s lists.

    I don’t think I would have read Captain Underpants until I saw this review, but forty million copies? I have to read it now.

  2. As a mom to a 9 year old boy I had initially the same reaction to Captain Underpants series.
    However watching my son laugh out loud while reading – I emphasise reading – the books made me reconsider my serious approach to reading in general.

  3. G.Perry says:

    I managed to get hands on a copy of this book this morning, and read it.

    As an adult, I had to push myself through the resistance I have always felt about a front cover image of a child in underpants. Since it was a boy, I think being male helped me succeed. Had it been a girl, I would have made loud objection to it.

    At first,I thought the book was just interesting, but it actually grows on you as you continue to read.

    Just past the halfway point, the author takes a turn into what feels almost like a second book. As I read, I thought “Now this is not going to work!” However, it does indeed work. He also adds a hand animation for the child to do with a few pages, which children will love doing. Especially younger children.

    When I was through reading the book, I gave some thought to how I felt about the experience.

    What I came up with was that it was really just lot of fun. Just plain silly fun.

    I’m still not to over-the-top about a children’s book that involves a picture of a child in underpants on the cover, but it was a fun book. And there is no indication that the garment images makes (ahem..) the personal, obvious.

    My guess is that children reading it are going to be far less inhibited about the garment issue than most grown-ups. I believe the sales numbers indicate children have voted in favor of it in a huge way.

    I can hear forty million kids giggling like mad listening to, or reading Captain Underpants.

  4. Trina says:

    I cannot get my seven-year-old to read this series. He’s enjoyed other books by Dav Pilkey, including Ook and Gluk, but is for some reason offended by the boy in underpants. He loves potty humor and is currently reading a book called SIr Fartsalot Hunts a Booger (absolutely ridiculous, but much fun for a little boy).

    With literacy rates amongst boys decreasing rather than increasing, I think it’s critical to get them reading. Period. Once they have literacy skills, confidence, and motivation, encouraging them to read certain books might be possible. Without those three factors though…

  5. Anita says:

    Thanks for all these comments. Getting boys — and girls — reading and enjoying reading is so important. Dav Pilkey has accomplished this in the Captain Underpants series and all his other books. I have the utmost respect for any author who can keep children turning the pages and laughing at the same time. Anita

  6. Star says:

    I used to run summer reading programs in needy community centers, and at the beginning of each summer I’d ask the kids what books they’d like me to purchase for their center. All of the boys always begged for Captain Underpants. I was hesitant, but after hearing more about the books, I gave in and I NEVER regretted it. These kids devoured the books…they read them over and over again. The atmosphere in those centers changed completely when Captain Underpants appeared…instead of boys running around wreaking havoc and attacking each other and being uninterested in the books that were available to them, they would sit and either listen to a volunteer read the books aloud or they’d read them themselves (not quietly, but laughter over funny books is always welcomed). My nephew also loved these books (along with the Wimpy Kid series). In my mind, as long as kids are reading and enjoying the experience…let them read books about a kid in underpants!

    Until this post, Anita, I’d never made realized that Pilkey also wrote one of my daughters’ favorite books, The Hallo-wiener, which is one of the best books dealing with bullying (in a non-pedantic manner) that I’ve ever read. Love it!

  7. Anita says:

    Star: Great post! Thanks for sharing this story. Anita

  8. Becky says:

    I hope you will have a chance to read Dav Pilky’s beautifully illustrated picture book, The Paperboy (1996) about a paperboy and his dog and their special mornings together. The final page contains a foreshadowing of Captain Underpants when, after finishing his paper route, the boy goes back to bed and in his dream we see him flying with his dog, in his underpants. I am the librarian at an elementary school and I read this Caldecott Honor book to 2nd graders — it never fails to delight (especially the underpants!) I introduce the book by telling them they probably know other books by this author. If they don’t recognize his name I wait until that last page and, after the titters subside, I tell to look on this page for a clue to the author’s most famous character. That invariably gets an excited answer.

  9. Joan says:

    I have also read The Paperboy at many, many preschool story times over the years. I love the book. I am sad to note however, that I needed to explain the concept of newspapers and the job of a paperboy before I read this story to my current group of 3-5 year-olds. What a shame!

  10. I’m a teacher, and teachers say things that hurt and embarrass kids all the time. Sometimes it’s inadvertent. Sometimes (I’m sorry to say) its deliberate. But it happens, and our words can make such a strong impression that they stay with a child forever. We need to be very cognizant of the power we wield and use it kindly. To me, Captain Underpants is a brilliant stroke of fantasy. In this story, little boys who struggle to conform in school get to turn the tables for once. They wield the power and embarrass the principal, in a hysterically funny and perfectly harmless way. Thank you, Anita, for coming around.

  11. Shoshana says:

    What I think is great about this series, besides the high-interest factor, is that the stories depend on cartoons created by the main characters. Thus, the books tell kids, “There’s power in what you write. Even if you’re young, and even if what you choose to write has characters like Professor Poopypants.”

  12. Beverly says:

    To G. Perry:
    If you can get past Stephen King’s rough language, he is a brilliant storyteller. I don’t care for his vulgar language, but I confess that when I start a book by King, I usually can’t stop until it’s finished. His writing catches me from the first page. I can say that of very few writers today.

    I respect that Pilkey and others like him (Scieszka comes to mind) understand the humor of young readers, especially boys. Not my cup of tea, but whatever gets them to read . . .

  13. PragmaticMom says:

    My son loved these books in 1st and 2nd grade! They are wonderful for getting boys reading!!

  14. Joemts says:

    I was a children’s fiction book buyer in ’97 and bought into Captain Underpants heavily and wholeheartedly upon release. I instantly saw in it the kind of humor my friends and I shared in elementary school, although at a higher level of craft. Yet it was this seeming simplicity that made it an embraceable object. Capt. Underpants not only became a gateway book for many readers, it was a category creator for Chapter Books, along with its sister series Junie B. Jones, its cousin The Time Warp Trio, and The Magic Tree House series.

    Fly that flag high on this blustery day.

  15. Sarah Tuttle says:

    These were a big hit in my family. They were fun to read aloud (which I did many, many times for my brother), and a great series to transition to early reading. I think they were passed down the family, from one kid to another. Any book that gets kids talking about, sharing, and enjoying reading is a treasure to the world.

  16. Bridget Heos says:

    When I read the first books in the series to my boys, they were the funniest books I’d ever read. By the time the later books came out, my boys would read them on their own. But my youngest son sometimes asks me to read parts to him. In one of the newest books, there is a flashback of when George and Harold meet. That’s when I realized that the series isn’t about potty talk. Well, it is, but it’s really about friendship. George and Harold share the same sense of humor, the same way of dealing with bullies, and it’s a beautiful thing. I’m so happy my sons and other kids have these books to enjoy. I wish for them the same kind of friendship George and Harold have.

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