“Think for yourself. Question authority. Read banned books! Kids have the same constitutional rights as grown-ups!!! Don’t forget to boycott standardized testing!!!”The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby
The above can be found on the instruction page for The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby Flip-O-Rama #8 as a “subliminal message” given that “nobody reads these pages” anyway. The message and the way it’s imparted tells you a lot about Dav Pilkey, the extremely successful yet often banned or challenged author and illustrator of the Captain Underpants (1997) and Dog Man series (2016), among many other series and individual titles, who celebrates his 54th birthday on March 4, 2020.
Dog Head + Cop Body = Dog Man!
While I have memories of the Captain Underpants books’ popularity at the independent bookstore where I worked after college, my true introduction to Pilkey came in early 2019 with a friend’s gift of a book in the Dog Man series to my young daughters, along with Raina Telgemeier’s book Sisters (which I wrote about here). Both books entered the family story rotation quicker than I had expected given that neither are written for the 5-and-under set. Books in the Dog Man series have stayed in the rotation ever since, and we bounce between the eight (so far) books of the series. We’ve also recently read The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby, a spin-off series of Captain Underpants, best described by KHOU-TV as being about “a baby with super powers battling a giant nuclear-mutated piece of poo.” Graphic novels are wonderful for little kids and the whole family enjoys Pilkey’s wordplay, but it’s the surprisingly affecting emotional resonance of his books that has made devoted fans of my husband and me.
“A Spree of Mischievousness Which Has Lasted His Entire Life”
Captain Underpants and Dog Man were initially created as a result of Pilkey’s life as a kid with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. His teachers in the early 1970s did not know how to work with neurodiverse students, which led to a lot of perceived misbehavior on his part and a lot of time in elementary school spent sitting alone in the hallways as punishment. He was, as he puts it in “The Almost Completely True Adventures of Dav Pilkey,” “a responsible kid — whenever anything bad happened, Dav was responsible!” When he was 8, he began to use his hallway time to draw Captain Underpants and Dog Man comics. While his comics were seen by his middle and high school teachers as further examples of his disruptiveness, eventual support from a professor in college led him to getting his work published. He has since become a champion of neurodiversity; as he told the Washington Post (2019):
“I want kids [with ADHD] to know that there’s nothing wrong with you. You just think differently, and that’s a good thing. It’s good to think differently. This world needs people who think differently; it’s your superpower.”
Pilkey’s superpower is to write graphic books that are funny, clever, and meaningful, in language and pictures that make deeper thoughts accessible to young readers, particularly boys like Pilkey who might have also been given the message from their teachers that they were bad at school and too loud.* The way he writes, what Nwokah, Hernandez, Miller and Garza (2019) call his “his full communicative repertoire,” introduces children to new vocabulary words while also showing the playfulness of language through puns, hyperbole, portmanteaus, alliteration, and multilevel jokes that adults will get while their children do not. I have a particular fondness for the round mute robot first seen in Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties (2017) called the “80-Hexagon Droidformigon,” or “80-HD” (get it??), whose flip-flopped feet are never without an attending “flipflopflipflopflipflop” sound effect. Pilkey’s books are really fun to read aloud.
George and Harold’s Epic Works
However, for all that his books have been a massive publishing success, not all who read them are fans. Pilkey channels the creative, frustrated, disruptive child sitting in the hallway through the 4th graders George Beard and Harold Hutchins, the main characters of Captain Underpants and the attributed authors of the Super Diaper Baby and Dog Man series, responsible for the books’ misspellings, scatological humor, and mischievous perspective. George and Harold behave badly, say gross things, and disrespect authority figures who disrespect them, and because of this some adult readers have claimed the books are a negative influence on young readers, leading the Captain Underpants series to be #13 and Super Diaper Baby #47 on ALA’s most challenged books of 2000-2009 list. One challenge to the book in a ND school district in 2002 led to both the removal of the book and a new policy requiring school board approval of library purchases (Banned Books: Challenging Our Freedom to Read by Robert P. Doyle, 2014, p. 263; the 2017 edition is available from ALA).
After some time off the lists, Captain Underpants appeared again on ALA’s 2018 list of banned/challenged books, again for supposedly “encouraging disruptive behavior,” and because one book in the series featured a same-sex couple.
A Diamond in the Poo
In a video for 2014’s Banned Books Week, Pilkey observes that when it comes to books, “Everybody doesn’t always like the same things.” However, to focus on the perceived negatives in Pilkey’s work can overlook the good in what he does. I will admit, I sometimes edit the words I read aloud in Dog Man and Super Diaper Baby because I don’t want my children learning or saying them. But when they are able to read the books themselves, that will if anything be an opportunity to discuss the words I find objectionable and why (not the bathroom words as much as the ableist ones) rather than try to keep them from reading the books altogether. Pilkey’s books are also characterized by the regular appearance of guides to teach kids how to draw the book’s characters or make their own flip-o-ramas to inspire their own creativity. My 5.5-year-old recently drew an elaborate ten-page book for a family friend’s birthday that reminded me a lot of the comics the genius kitten Lil’ Petey sends his friend Flippy, a “supa-mecha” formerly evil fish who later becomes the foster father of 22 tadpoles.
The most recent book in the Dog Man series is Fetch-22 (2019), in which villain-turned-unwilling-father Petey realizes the value in working to do good in the world if even just on a personal level (the series favorite of both Pilkey and myself). The moral and ethical lessons taught through the silly adventures of a dog-headed police officer and a not-quite-so-villainous cat, or an anarchic duo and their underpants-wearing hypnotized superhero principal, show Pilkey’s understanding of the value in children reading books that interest and appeal to them and recognize their worth while also taking the opportunity to impart some wisdom in a way they’re more likely to absorb it. If you appreciate wordplay, silliness, and empathetic characters, read a Dog Man today!
* Note: The centering of boys in the Captain Underpants books was cited by Jessica Roake in Slate in 2012: “It’s unfortunate that Pilkey’s approach, and appeal, is so rigidly boy-focused. Girls have no place in the Captain’s world.” While I think it’s worth noting that the Dog Man series have progressively worked to include more female characters, the world of Dog Man is, unfortunately, still pretty boy-focused and I wish it were otherwise.
Vicky Ludas Orlofsky has been the Instruction & Scholarly Communication Librarian at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, since 2013. She has long had a personal and professional interest in issues of copyright, user privacy and intellectual freedom, which has informed her approach to instruction and reference. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young children, and in her spare time, such as it is, enjoys bakeries, reading, and coffee.