Why Parents (and Teachers) Should Embrace Captain Underpants

Snapshots of life at home.
Sept. 7 2012 11:24 PM

One Nation, Underpants

The triumphant return of Captain Underpants, hero to hyper, school-hating 8-year-olds.

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And anyway, Pilkey, like Dahl, does not demand that his youthful protagonists be better than the adults who torment them. The boys sabotage the work of their fellow students (“nerds” come in for an unsettling amount of scorn from the usually underdog-rooting Pilkey) and often cross the line from pranksters to genuine terrors. Pilkey, though, is defiant in his refusal to judge the boys as anything other than good, rowdy kids ill-served by an authoritarian education system intent on medicating them into submission. Pilkey was just such a kid, and on his website writes, "I had a pretty tough time in school. I've always had reading problems, and I didn't learn the same way that most of the kids in my class learned (being severely hyperactive didn't help much, either). I was discouraged a lot, and sometimes I felt like a total failure."

Dav Pilkey.
Author Dav Pilkey

Photograph by Karyn Carpenter.

For years, I taught English to bright students with language-based learning disabilities like dyslexia and ADHD. My students generally came to our school having experienced only academic failure and discouragement. Despite their anxiety and fear about reading, their struggles had often been ignored or denied; their inability to sit still marked them as disciplinary problems, and they believed themselves to be academic failures who simply could not succeed. For kids like this, teachers really can be villains, and no amount of acting out will upend the essential unfairness of their position in the school world.

Our students, especially the boys, loved Captain Underpants. The plots are fast-paced, action-packed, and gleefully absurd. ("Look … Here's a carton of ANTI-EVIL-ZOMBIE-NERD JUICE.") Each book features the "Pilkey Brand Flip-O-Rama," a do-it-yourself flip book of cartoons that lets readers animate a chapter of "Incredibly Graphic Violence," while not incidentally building in a physical break and activity for readers who might need one. Pranks, fart jokes and vivid descriptions of barf-like cafeteria food are enhanced by excellent vocabulary, sly wit, and knowing winks about story structure.

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But that last part is the English teacher in me. I don't think most Captain Underpants readers like the books for their meta flourishes, or for the sharp cultural criticism hidden within (Pilkey describes a prison as being like “Jerome Horwitz Elementary, except that the prison had better funding"). They're drawn to them because for the first time in their reading lives they are understood, entertained, and catered to all at once. It is theirs, not ours, and that feeling of exclusive ownership forges the kind of connection everyone should have with at least one book in their life. For that, most every English teacher of my acquaintance will be more than happy to take the shot to the ego the Captain provides.

Plus, the Captain serves as an excellent gateway drug to even more offensive-to-authority literature, which is actually the sinister goal of most English teachers. A place on the banned books lists puts Captain Underpants in some august company. Would Huck Finn be celebrated if he did what he was told? What if Holden Caulfield had just stayed at his nice prep school, or Ellison’s eponymous Invisible Man had accepted his lot in the South? Granted, Orwell is lacking in poop jokes (Shakespeare has some!), but Captain Underpants introduces its audience to a more relatable, elementary version of Orwell’s truth: A dirty joke is a sort of mental rebellion.

Pilkey knows the devotion his fans give the Captain, and has gradually deepened his message for the armies of Georges and Harolds out there. In the new book, Pilkey rails against bullies of both the adult and child variety. The novel flashes back to kindergarten, where George and Harold, both lonely and bright misfits, find each other while taking down the school bully, who happens to be Mr. Krupp's nephew. "There is not a whole lot you can do when you are a little kid who encounters injustice,” Pilkey writes, offering the kind of wisdom that every parent and teacher ought to recognize the value of. “The sad truth is, big people usually have all of the power. You can't force anyone to be kind or fair or honorable, especially if you're only forty-three inches tall and weigh only fifty pounds. That's why it's important to be smart."

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Jessica Roake, a frequent Slate contributor, lives in Washington, D.C.