Title Photo Credit: SuperKimagery.com
If you have spent any length of time around young children, I don’t have to tell you that there is nothing more entertaining than potty humor. You know… the burp and fart noises, and general grossness that turns heads and incites uproars of laughter and hours of amusement. So when I stumbled across an unopened boxed set of the Captain Underpants series at a garage sale one afternoon, I immediately thought of my seven-year-old son.
He had been hesitant to read on his own, seeing that his sister caught on to the written word much faster, I noticed that he would slump behind and just listen to her, or do summersaults around us as we perused their story books. The reading level of this series made popular by author and illustrator Dav Pilkey is around 7-10 years old. This series was just over where my son was at the time, so in effort to monitor this new material, I decided to read it to them one small chapter at a time.
As a former elementary and middle school teacher, I was aware that this series had become a big hit as of late, although I never gave it much attention for two reasons: my kids weren’t at the age to read them yet, and I honestly thought that any book with potty humor as its infrastructure, would not be substantial for building a strong literary experience.
It didn’t take long before I was hooked – and it wasn’t by the potty humor. It was the sheer creativity and organizational genius of this series. I enjoyed reading each page with expression, hearing my kids laugh, and connecting with them on their level.
Yes, there are many beautifully crafted educational and intellectually rigorous resources for children. We are actually utilizing the Classical Conversations curriculum in our after-school homeschool time. But there is much more to Captain Underpants than meets the ::fart noise::
3 Simple Reasons Why I Appreciate the Captain Underpants Series
1. The Characters are Relatable to Young Boys
George Beard and Harold Hutchins are two best friends, and always finding ways to avoid the dullness of school. But I began to see my son through their eyes. How he fidgets and squirms and can’t sit still for too long. He learns best when there is action and adventure attached to each lesson, and I can’t use too many words when I explain things or his mind is gone to far off places until I can wrangle him back in… metaphorically, but sometimes literally. The Captain Underpants series featured boys about his age, also bored in a traditional school environment, (like Ralphie in the classic Looney Toons cartoon) and amusing themselves with interesting plans.
2. They Encourage Creativity & Problem Solving
George and Harold find themselves in awkward predicaments at little to no fault of the own (usually), and work as a team to make things right again. Together, they created a comic books series that, in effect, went viral through their school. They combine efforts of writing and drawing to create our epic hero Captain Underpants who comes to life and fights for “Truth, Justice, and all things that are Pre-Shrunk and Cottony!” At the end of each adventure, the boys are forced to face the consequences of their actions, whether it be sabotaging Melvin’s invention that results in Talking Toilets, Lunchroom Zombie Nerds, Nasty Nostril Nuggets, or a Wicked Wedgie Woman. But they persevere and work together to bring balance back to Jerome Horwitz Elementary School.
3. They Encourage Humor & Positivity
From the eyes of a young boy, school is repetitive, boring, and dull.They’re constantly making things more interesting, from changing the letters on the lunch menu around to create funny new phrases, to pulling pranks that inevitably gets them sent to Mr. Krupp’s office. For all intents and purposes, I think we have failed young boys in our school systems in many ways by showing bias toward mild-mannered girls, taking away expressive arts, and even diminishing recess in some areas of the country. See PragerU’s video here about The War on Boys.
Why Are Adults Turning their Noses Up?
The Captain Underpants series is among the frequently challenged, or banned, children’s books. It comes as no surprise that some have deemed this series as “anti-authoritarian” and “inappropriate.” While it’s true that the adults are depicted as either diabolical or uninteresting, you have to remember that this is written from a kid’s perspective, and for a kid audience. Actually, understanding the author’s background helped me to understand the motivation behind his career in comics: Read Dav Pilkey’s Awesome Bio here.
My response: if we restrict children to express their views on the impact of adults in their lives, how will they be expected to stand up when they encounter adults who are truly suppressive dictators? I would love if my kids always drew pictures of me with hearts and flowers, but the truth is, “I hate you” will probably come flying out of their mouth someday in response to a necessary discipline. We can’t fear or suppress our children’s self-expression as much as we can’t fear having honest conversations with them about the real moral, make-it-or-break-it issues of life.
“My goal with Captain Underpants is to make kids laugh and to give children (and especially reluctant readers) a positive experience with reading at a crucial time in their development (ages 7 to 10). Children in this age group who hate to read are in great danger of becoming functionally illiterate adults. So when a child connects to a book — even if it’s a book that we as adults might not care for — it’s a BIG DEAL!”
I found this article fascinatingly hilarious… you’ll see why when you read their reasons for Why Captain Underpants is the Most Banned Book in America.
My final thought on this controversy is summed up in two quotes, the first by famous astronomer, inventor, and deemed the Father of Modern Science, Galileo Galilei:
“You cannot teach a[boy] anything, you can only help him find it within himself.”
…and the second by the famous theoretical physicist, inventor, and mathematician Albert Einstein (which can also be found on the first page of book 5 in the series:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
I want to sit beside my kids and experience the good, the bad, the crude, and the ridiculous together. Within reason, with a discerning spirit, but the key word is together. I want them to be comfortable sharing anything with me, encouraged to be creative and think outside the box without restrictive fears of childhood silliness being frowned upon.
The First Epic Movie!
This summer, DreamWorks (creators of Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and the Madagascar movies) literally made Pilkey’s dream a reality when they released Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie on June 2, 2017.
The kids and I went to see it this week and had a great time! This was truly one of the best children’s movies I’ve ever seen, very clean, and without inappropriate adult innuendo. (Which was great, especially for a DreamWorks movie who tends to sneak little things in to cater to the adult population).
As the saying goes, “the book is always better than the movie,” which is why I’m glad we got through the entire Captain Underpants series first. But True to form with the paperback series, the film utilizes many types of narrative story telling combined with computer animation, hand-drawings, and even puppetry. I liked that the animation was not overtly textured; the shapes were simple and colorful with just enough detail and action. As in the book, the hand-drawings were within the scope and ability of a 7-10 year old, which I think helps to inspire the confidence of creativity.
Our Favorite Parts
- References to 80’s and 90’s music
- Boys say to each other, “It’s like we’re the same person, yet so different.”
- Depicts stereotypical school and office environments
- One minute orchestra rendition of fart noises
- Kids put teachers in detention
- Storyline was recreated (didn’t go chronologically through the books), but covered adventures in books one and five.
- Kids save everyone from a world without laughter
- George says, “Your problem isn’t that people laugh at you, it’s that you can’t laugh at yourself!” To which Professor Poopypants retorted, “Oh really, Oprah, is that my problem?!”
- When the characters referred to “potty humor” as “the lowest form of comedy,” and “the lowest form of wit.” (perfect jab at the critics, lol)
The Epic Soundtrack
Two selections that we enjoyed, you can find the rest on YouTube 🙂
I admire Dav Pilkey for using his creative characteristics to encourage young readers, and make a living for himself doing what he loves. In a world where intellectual knowledge and creative sensibility are often at odds, I have found myself happier to engage in ridiculous stories while my kids still want to engage with me. I love that I could use the Captain Underpants series as a gateway for my son to love reading. Now we’re on to poetry by Shel Silverstein, and original short stories by Hans Christian Andersen, under which his attention is fixed, his thoughts are provoked, and his attention is held in my arms… for now.