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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A litmus test: How hilarious do you find the name Professor Tippy Tinkletrousers, formerly known as Professor Pippy Pee-Pee Poopypants? Not very? Then you are likely an adult person, perhaps of the female variety. If you do not find jokes about gas, poop, tinkle, wedgies, and barf endlessly hilarious—if you are not, in body or spirit, an 8-year-old boy—Dav Pilkey’s phenomenally successful Captain Underpants series is not for you. And that is precisely the point.

Like any great revolutionary, Pilkey has raised the ire of many a disapproving adult over the years. The Pilkey empire—the Captain Underpants, Ook and Gluk, and Super Diaper Baby series, among others—has been a popular target for censors since The Adventures of Captain Underpants was released in 1997. Captain has been challenged by school boards, libraries, and parents for its crassness, poor spelling and grammar (within every book is a comic “written by” the fourth-grade protagonists, who are not, shockingly, master grammarians), and anti-authority themes. It’s hard to imagine a response more in keeping with the books’ crudeness and disrespect for teachers. And that’s why Captain Underpants is so perfect for young readers. In order to build the habits of life-long readers, the slyly intelligent Captain Underpants books are explicitly not for uptight grown-ups, i.e. all grown-ups.

Instead, Pilkey writes for an audience often frowned upon by adult authority figures: Hyper boys bored by school, reluctant readers not drawn to the sometimes medicinal titles on school reading lists. (It’s unfortunate that Pilkey’s approach, and appeal, is so rigidly boy-focused. Girls have no place in the Captain’s world.) These readers are embodied by George and Harold, Pilkey’s heroes, who make mischief while dodging the sadistic teachers of Jerome Horwitz Elementary. Their greatest adversary is Principal Krupp, whose "very soul danced at the thought of crushing a child's spirit and dashing his or her hopes and dreams against the jagged rocks of never-ending despair." After the punishment for a particularly excellent pep-rally prank proves too much for the boys to endure, they hypnotize Principal Krupp into assuming the identity of one Captain Underpants, who "fights for Truth, Justice, and all that is Pre-Shrunk and Cottony!” Over the course of nine books, the boys and the Captain have battled talking toilets, aliens disguised as nasty lunch-ladies, supersonic wedgies, evil robots, Professor Tinkletrousers, and the daily threat of lifelong detention.

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The children's literature world is brimming with poignant, metaphor-heavy, gracefully rendered portraits of childhood that English teachers just cherish. Captain Underpants is not one of them. Indeed, in the world of Harold and George, the books’ heroes, and that of many of the series’ readers, English teachers are the enemy. With the release of the first Captain Underpants book in six years, Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers, it’s worth considering what makes Pilkey’s series so subversive and revolutionary. Young readers recognize a kindred spirit in Pilkey—an adult whose sympathies, anarchic energy, and sense of rebellion stand with misunderstood troublemakers everywhere.

Every book begins with a description of George and Harold from the perspective of their loving and indulgent creator, an author fiercely protective of his boys' spirits. As Pilkey writes in Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets:

Depending on who you asked, you'd probably hear a lot of different things about George and Harold. Their teacher, Ms. Ribble, might say that George and Harold were disruptive and behaviorally challenged. Their gym teacher, Mr. Meaner, might add that they were in need of a serious attitude adjustment. Their principal, Mr. Krupp, would probably have a few more choice words to include, like sneaky, and criminally mischievous, and "I'll get those boys if it's the last thing I …" Well, you get the idea. But if you asked their parents, they'd probably tell you that George and Harold were smart and sweet, and very good-hearted … even if they were a bit silly at times. I'd have to agree with their parents.

The teachers are the real villains here: narrow-minded, cruel idiots who taunt George and Harold, throw parties upon their suspensions, and generally delight in punishing children. They are Roald Dahl's evil adults, but even more broadly-drawn; like Dahl, Pilkey does not sugarcoat the unfairness of childhood or the petty tyrannies of adults on power trips. At Jerome Horwitz Elementary, drawn from Pilkey's own childhood experience, teachers punish creativity and praise blind obedience. They force the students to obey soul-crushing rules, oppose independent thought, and feed them poisonous cafeteria food and aggressively mind-numbing lessons.

This gross caricature of the villainous teacher may not be appreciated by the underpaid, overworked educators who toil thanklessly to educate the nation's children–I don't know any teachers who actually relish the pain of children the way Pilkey's do (except the gym teachers of my youth). But with all due respect to the dedicated teachers (and none to the gym teacher), so what? Any teacher/student power dynamic is tipped in the adult's favor, and children need to feel like someone understands the fundamental unfairness of their world. Pilkey may be overly hard on teachers, but there can sometimes be nothing harder than a terrible teacher for a struggling kid.

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.

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.

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