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Captain Underpants: The straight poop on a grossly entertaining series of children's books
(CNN) -- Here's what you need to know about Captain Underpants, in brief: He's a pudgy comic superhero in a red cape and white undies, who flies through the pages of a series of children's books, battling foes like Dr. Diaper and Professor Poopypants while defending "truth, justice, and all that is pre-shrunk and cottony."
The adventures of Captain Underpants are recorded in four illustrated "chapter books" that are wildly popular even by the gold standard of children's literature: They rank just behind J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books on leading children's bestseller lists. Scholastic publishes both series.
There are more than six million "Captain Underpants" books in print -- most of them in the grimy hands and under the unmade beds of 6- to 10-year-old boys, who seem especially fond of the books' often crude and always irreverent sense of humor. Side-splitting words like "barf," "pee-pee," "girdle" and "butt" grace the pages.
"The books are awesome, cool, and inappropriate," said 8-year-old Dustin Snowadzky, whose mother, Marcie Roth, somewhat wearily confirmed the books' appeal to those amused by "arm farts, burping contests, dirt, and potty humor."
That crowd seems to relate to the books' key characters -- George and Harold, two prankish fourth-graders fascinated by all things gross: fake doggie-doo, gloppy cafeteria food, nose-picking and the product thereof.
The creator of Captain Underpants
In the books, George and Harold are the inadvertent creators of Captain Underpants. They turn their crabby principal, Mr. Krupp, into the briefs-wearing superhero when they hypnotize Krupp with a magic 3-D Hypno-Ring. (Don't ask.)
The advertent creator of all these characters is Dav Pilkey, a 34-year-old writer and children's book illustrator who lives in Seattle with a little dog named Little Dog.
Pilkey says all similarities between George and Harold and himself are no coincidence.
In the books, George and Harold are described as "behaviorally challenged," and suspected of having attention deficit disorder. In real life, Pilkey was diagnosed with A.D.D., and suffers from it to such an extent that he avoids face-to-face and telephone interviews. He will answer questions only via e-mail.
"I had A.D.D.," Pilkey recently e-recalled. "I had a lot of trouble, um... what was the question again?"
As a second-grader, Pilkey was so disruptive in class that his exasperated teacher put his desk out in the hallway. (Pilkey says he stayed there pretty much throughout elementary school, moving his desk down the hall outside a new classroom each year). He had time on his hands, and a pencil.
"It was there in the hall that I began drawing Captain Underpants," said Pilkey. "Soon I was making my own comic books about him."
Classmates clamored to read each new hand-drawn Dave Pilkey production. (He was "Dave" back then. He became "Dav" many years later when he was working at a Pizza Hut. When his supervisor tried to make a nametag for him, the label-maker stuck on the "e" and for Pilkey, the resulting name stuck, too.)
Pilkey remembers his second-grade teacher as less than encouraging of his budding illustrator's talents. "One day she ripped up one of my comics and told me I'd better grow up, because I couldn't spend the rest of my days making silly books," said Pilkey.
Fortunately, said Pilkey, he never was a very good listener.
He was a very good observer, though. Early on, he noted that the mere mention of words like "underpants" and "poop" made kids laugh so hard that milk came out their noses.
So the "Captain Underpants" books are flush with bathroom humor and references to bodily functions. There are names like Ivana Goda de Bafroom, and Pippy P. Poopypants (the middle initial stands for Pee-Pee). Alien bad-guys are able to "leap tall buildings with the gassy aftereffects of their 'Texas-style' three-bean chili con carne."
Encouraging bad behavior?
Many parents say they don't appreciate the effect of such references on kids, who can seem eternally mired in the "potty" phase.
"Bathroom talk is something you're trying to teach them NOT to do, and these books are encouraging them to do it," said Therese Henderson, a Calgary, Canada, mother of an 8-year-old and 5-year-old who love the books. "It's counterproductive for a parent."
Many teachers don't appreciate the books' accounts of devilish pranks and smartypants back-talk. "Students want to mime that behavior, instead of being on task," said Roberta Hepp, a first-grade teacher in Weatherford, Texas. "It's very counterproductive for a teacher."
One elementary school in Naugatuck, Connecticut, even banned the books last February after school leaders claimed it was inspiring mischief in fourth-graders.
How does Pilkey respond to such complaints? "I usually just cup my left hand into my right armpit and pump my right arm up and down, creating a lovely flatulence noise," he said.
Parents and teachers may disapprove, but most kids love it -- in part because parents and teachers may disapprove.
"Grown-ups, they say the books are vulgar," said Sam Butterfield, 10, a Captain Underpants disciple from Hingham, Massachusetts. "But it's just funny writing, you know?"
Librarian: 'Captain Underpants is my hero'
"The content IS sometimes vulgar, scatological, rude -- but so are 9-year-old boys," said Mary Jo Dickerson, whose son Ian reads the books out loud to her. "I say any book that encourages my son to read is worth its weight in gold."
Thousands of parents, teachers and school librarians agree. "Rarely do we encounter books that will make children beg for more," said Amy Daniels, a long-time children's librarian in Columbia, South Carolina. "Captain Underpants is my hero."
The series has engrossed thousands of kids who have never willingly read a book before -- kids like James Innocent, a 9-year-old from Stoughton, Massachusetts.
"At school, when they say I have to read, I feel like they're punishing me," he said. But he loves reading and re-reading "Captain Underpants." His mother, Jean, says they are the only books her son has ever read for pleasure, and with pleasure.
"There's a lot of talk these days about how 'Harry Potter' has gotten kids interested in reading again, but not in our house," said Janice Shepherd, the mother of a 9-year-old in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. "My son wasn't at all interested in reading until he discovered Captain Underpants."
Pilkey says he created the books with the interests of uninterested readers in mind. "I wanted kids who hate reading to find these books irresistible," he said. "I had a lot of reading problems growing up. It used to take me forever to read and comprehend stuff, so I decided not to make the Captain Underpants books TOO challenging."
The 100-page stories are divided into short chapters, each with a clever, enticing heading. And virtually every turn in the plot is illustrated by Pilkey's cartoonish drawings, which literally draw hesitant and halting readers into the story.
"The illustrations, they help me get an idea in my head of what's going to happen next in the writing, so it makes reading easier," said Sean Castell, a Woodbridge, Virginia, 9-year-old whose mother, Marcher, describes him as "a VERY reluctant reader."
Little jokes, big words and your name in Poopypant-ese
Yet while the plots of the stories are very silly, the writing has wit and sophistication. Sentences are salted with vocabulary-building words, used in clear and helpful context: "hideous," "convenient," "merciless," "gullible." Young readers are exposed to compound sentences, the concept of synonyms, and alliteration, to which Pilkey is particularly prone.
The books encourage children to not only read words, but to play with them, like toys.
In the fourth book of the series, "Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants," Pilkey provides a chart of silly syllables and semi-crass words that, when applied according to a set formula, will reconfigure a name. This chart and formula are part of Professor Poopypants' bid for world domination. (Don't ask.)
Principal Krupp becomes Lumpy Pottybiscuits. George and Harold become Fluffy and Cheeseball.
Click for the interactive Captain Underpants name-change chart at Scholastic.com
"It's incredibly funny," said Sam Butterfield, 10, who delights in telling people that his name translates to Snotty Toiletnose, and has spent hours with his friends translating the names of parents, teachers, coaches, people in the newspaper, anybody.
Not all of the wordplay in the "Captain Underpants" books is so base, or so obvious. Young readers won't get some of it, won't smile wryly at the names of George and Harold's school psychologist, Miss Labler, or the principal's secretary, Miss Anthrope.
"I've learned never to underestimate the sense of humor of a kid," said Pilkey. "But does it matter if the joke flies over a kid's head? No. As long as my girlfriend thinks it's funny, it stays."
Pilkey's mix of little jokes and big words works: the "Captain Underpants" books are both funny enough to hold young readers' interest until the end, and challenging enough to give them confidence to read on, read more.
"I think he's getting kids going on reading," said Ben Siegel, 8, a New York City "Captain Underpants" reader. "They'll think, 'Oh, that was SUCH a good book, I hope that other books I might read -- hey wait a sec! I probably WILL read books that are as exciting as this!' And then they read another and another and soon they have tons of books that they're reading."
'Captain Underpants' unplugged -- and staying that way
Many parents hope their kids eventually select books of somewhat higher literary tone, but are trying to be patient in the meantime.
"Kids don't have to have a steady literary diet of nothing but uplifting, educational, Newbery Award-winning books," said Amy Counts, whose 8-year-old son Thomas is in full thrall to the "Captain Underpants" books. "It's certainly better than playing Pokemon on the Gameboy for the 34th consecutive hour."
Pilkey has been approached, even hounded, by video game manufacturers, television executives and movie producers who want the rights to Captain Underpants. But Pilkey says he wants the characters to stay between book covers.
He doesn't want Captain Underpants to be any more animated than he is in each book's Flip-O-Rama section -- successive pages that the reader flips back and forth to create a rough impression of movement.
Pilkey doesn't know how many more "Captain Underpants" books there will be, although there will be at least one more: He is just finishing the fifth volume, "Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman." The book, described by publishing insiders as "cheeky," will be in bookstores sometime in 2001.
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Dav Pilkey's Web Site O' Fun
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