The Author Of "Captain Underpants" On Why Kids Should Question Authority
Dav Pilkey talked to BuzzFeed about his latest graphic novel, why he loves writing children's books, and the importance of addressing mental health in literature.
Almost two decades ago, author and illustrator Dav Pilkey introduced the world to a character who’s now one of children's literature's most famous: Captain Underpants. The book series of the same name — a number of graphic novels that follow the adventures of two elementary school students named George and Harold — has changed the way kids read and think about books for the better.
Despite landing on banned books lists and receiving pushback from some adults, Pilkey continues to write, draw, and add to his ongoing collection of stories. Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot is the 12th and newest book to come out of the Captain Underpants series. George and Harold are up to their usual shenanigans, but eventually they also teach readers about the importance of not being afraid to question authority and standing up for what you believe in.
BuzzFeed had the chance to catch up with the author and discuss his latest graphic novel, how reading has the power to change lives, and his future plans for Captain Underpants. Here’s what he had to say:
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Dav Pilkey: It actually wasn't until I was in college. I didn't think I had any writing skills at all but I had a teacher in college who really encouraged me; she noticed that I liked to draw cartoons in my notebooks so she told me, "You should write children's books." And I did.
Why do you like storytelling in the format of graphic novels?
DP: I've always loved how in certain books, if there are a lot of illustrations they tell part of the story and the words tell a different part of the story. I've always liked the interplay of those two things, and since I love to draw I decided to do both.
What's your favorite part about writing for kids?
DP: I think my favorite thing about it is that I'm still sort of writing for myself. There's a big part of me that hasn't grown up yet, so when I write and I'm sort of focused on second, third, and fourth graders, I'm also really writing for the kid in myself.
Early on in Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot, you joke about how human beings can be too smart for their own good. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
DP: I haven't seen very much evidence of that, have you? Sometimes human beings are so smart they end up inventing dumb things. For example, leaf blowers, spray-on hair, or farm alarms, the really obnoxious things that drive people crazy and don't really have a purpose whatsoever.
Your books address the complicated relationships between adults and kids. Are the characters named the Grumpy Old People (GOP) in the book representative of this?
DP: Sometimes I get feedback from grown-ups and the grown-ups are upset about the books for one reason or another. It makes me feel like, I'm not really writing them for you; I'm writing them for kids to make kids laugh. They have issues with the books that kids don't have whatsoever, and so in this book and in the chapter with the GOPs I'm kind of poking fun at that and maybe sticking up for myself a little bit.
How did your own experience with ADHD shape your adolescence and influence Captain Underpants?
DP: When I was a kid I had ADHD, although there wasn't even a term for it back then. I was extremely hyperactive and had a lot of other issues; I had a hard time paying attention in class and had all the symptoms, but I wasn't actually diagnosed until I was an adult. But a lot of kids now are really dealing with that, it's something like 11% of children in the United States are diagnosed with ADHD. I felt kind of like a freak when I was a kid and I felt very alone, so I think one of the reasons why I wanted George and Harold to have those challenges is because I didn't want kids who are reading the book to feel so alone.
Is Rid-O-Kid 2000, "the cure for childhood" in the book, a metaphor for ADHD medication?
DP: ADHD is one of the themes of the book and so it's a bit of a correlation and comment on the overdiagnosis and overmedication that some experts believe is going on. I'm of course not qualified to really answer that because I'm not an expert, but some experts do believe that's going on.
You also mention in the book how when they're on the Rid-O-Kid 2000, the students say, “We never question authority figures.” Why do you think kids need to question authority figures sometimes?
DP: Sometimes adults have a problem with that; they've actually said the books tend to encourage kids to question authority and I don't see that as a bad thing. Sometimes authority figures are wrong, sometimes villains are out there and they're dressed like authority figures, and kids should know the difference. They should question things like that. I think it's a very important lesson for kids.
Do you think more YA and children's books should talk about topics and themes related to mental health?
DP: I think it's a good thing to do, even if you're like me where I'm not an expert but I can ask questions that get people talking and get a dialogue started. I think that if you're ever going to effect change or make things better, you need to start by talking.
What do you hope readers take away from The Sensational Saga of Sir-Stinks-A-Lot?
DP: The most important thing is for kids to have fun, especially kids who might think of reading as punishment because there are a lot of kids out there who just do not connect with books. I really want kids to have a good time, and that goes ahead of any message or anything like that at all. I just want kids to have fun because I think if one kid who has a problem with reading opens up a book and has a good time, they might go looking for another book and that could open up a door way to literacy. It could change your life.
After all these years and books, why do you keep writing?
DP: I think it has a lot to do with the reaction that I get from fans and from parents and grandparents of children. Almost every single day I hear from a parent or grandparent who will say, "This book changed my child's life. My kid refused to read before they found Captain Underpants and now they're reading Harry Potter or Narnia or something like that." They've gone on to other things but it just took that one silly book to get them started. That keeps me going.
Do you have any future plans to keep writing Captain Underpants books?
DP: Yes, there's going to be a lot more. Maybe about 10 years ago I started doing spin-offs of the stories that George and Harold write by themselves like Super Diaper Baby, and next year there's a new spin-off called The Adventures of Dog Man, which is talked about in The Sensational Saga of Sir-Stinks-A-Lot. Dog Man is actually the first character that George and Harold created when they were in kindergarten. There's going to be three books in a collection of Dog Man stories.
The Captain Underpants books have showed up on a lot of banned books lists. What would you say to someone who played a role in banning your books and preventing kids from reading them?
DP: I understand why a person might not want a child to read something they might consider to be frivolous or not really educational, but there's been a lot of research lately that shows the value of kids picking out their own books, reading for fun, and doing it all the time. It's really good for the brain; it helps them with their math skills, it helps with spelling and vocabulary. It's really about the fun stuff, like picking out your own books, having fun with it, and doing it over and over again. That's the important thing that's changing a lot of lives. One of the studies that came out recently showed that kids who pick out their own books are more likely to pick up new books and they read more and they have more confidence, too.
What advice would you give to a new writer who has a story to tell but doesn't really know how to get started?
DP: One of the key things I tell a lot of people is to just keep writing; the more you do it, the better you get. Even if you don't start out so great; I wasn't that good when I started out, but you learn from everything that you do so the more you do it, the better you get. And there are a lot of opportunities nowadays to publish. You can even self-publish now. A lot of people have become successful by starting out in self-publishing and eventually they get picked up by a publisher. Your library is probably a good source to find out information for how to get your work out there.
How has reading changed your life?
DP: Reading started out as a real challenge for me because I have dyslexia. When I was a kid I loved to read because I loved funny stories. The adults in my life were constantly telling me, "That's not appropriate," or they were always trying to take that stuff out of my hands, but the things that I read as a kid really shaped me as an adult. I read a lot of comics, a lot of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, and that showed me how to create a story. I also read a lot of Mad Magazine and that kind of woke me up to the world of satire. I think everything I loved as a child really shaped me as an artist today.
If you could go back in time and tell your teenage self anything, what would you say?
DP: I would probably say to not worry so much, don't be so stressed out. I was very stressed as a kid. Everyone's stressed out when they're young, especially if you grew up with a lot of problems like I did. I had a lot of challenges. I used to think that if I didn't do well in school I wasn't going to do well in life, but there are a lot of opportunities out there, especially for creative people. I would just say, "Be yourself, don't worry so much, everything will work out OK."