Sunday, September 18, 2016

On Reading Captain Underpants and Validating Our Children's Interests

I have looked at portions of the Captain Underpants books in the past since it is my nine-year-old son’s favorite book series right now, but I’ve never actually read through one...until now. I decided that I would use this week’s INFO 268 History of Youth Literature "series" assignment as an opportunity to connect with him, and so I asked him to recommend a book to read from any of the series that he likes, which also includes Magic Treehouse, Goosebumps, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Without pause, he said that I had to read Captain Underpants, and when I asked if he would recommend a particular book in the series, he identified book ten “the one with the boxer shorts on the cover” as the one I must read.

And so I did. Here are my thoughts on Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers.

Overall, the book details the story of two fourth grade - the same grade as my son - boys named George and Harold who go to school with a grumpy principal Mr. Krupp who turns into Captain Underpants. In this particular volume, George and Harold must protect Captain Underpants from nemesis Tippy Tinkletrousers, who is a “mad professor”-looking little man who rides on the top of giant trousers. Throughout the book, the characters time travel into the distant past and then into the future using ridiculous-sounding technical contraptions. They encounter different versions of themselves as they time travel, change in physical size from teeny tiny to gigantic, and they come across dinosaurs and cavemen, as well.

In terms of format and style, I think the book is appealing due to the creative use of cute drawings throughout, whether they are simple illustrations that accompany text or when they appear as sections of full-page comics or interactive “flip-o-rama” pages. It is also interesting how Pilkey directly addresses “you” as the reader, making conscious acknowledgement of the book format. For instance, near the beginning of the book, he writes: “By the time you get to page 210, you’ll know it all” (p. 18). In a similar spirit, Pilkey provides fan service for his devoted readers by referencing previous books: “...Captain Underpants destroyed it back in chapter eight of our last epic novel!” (p. 64).

In terms of language, the book opens with a comic that was enough to make me cringe since it features a number of misspellings reflecting the authentic work of a child. Once I got past that comic, though, I was pleasantly surprised to note the high level vocabulary that is used. Some of it is intentionally over-the-top to sound scientific-like to a silly degree (e.g., molecularly modified, carbonite-and-tibanna-gas-infused ice, electrified ozone, polarity on the emulsifying sossiflange inhibitor). But, there are also a number of vocabulary words that would be useful for children to encounter: misdirection, ferociously,  petrified, delinquents, disintegrated, despicable, maniacally, refuge, nemesis, peevishly, treacherous, engrossed, emanating, devious, doppelgängers, primeval, rivets, tempestuous, diabolical, stratosphere, detonate, incredulously, colossal, haughtily, bemoaned, and predicament.

Pilkey makes an allusion to the Tortoise and the Hare and a jab at Sarah Plain and Tall, which I know that my son knows nothing about. When time traveling, the characters visit the Mesozoic, Cretaceous, Cenozoic, and Pleistocene periods; and at one point, they geographically span North America from the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan Peninsula. These references sound academic on the one hand, but they are of course balanced with plenty of scatological humor such as: “My name is no longer Professor Poopypants. I changed it to Tippy Tinkletrousers” (p. 38). There is no doubt that the book caters to its young audience.

Beyond humor, Pilkey shows value for young people’s feelings, opinions, and experiences. Here are a couple of examples that stood out to me.

  • Near the beginning of the book, the pages below had me cracking up. I asked my son if he could relate to this, and he nodded in emphatic agreement. I took pictures of the pages so that you can catch a glimpse of him, too.

  • Later, at the end of the book, George and Harold vow “We need to quit making comic books and start paying more attention to our schoolwork” (p. 169). But, they then travel into the future and see that this vow results in them becoming just the types of adults that they hate and so they then “vow a new vow that unvows the old vow we just vowed” (p. 181). This is the one serious moment in the book. “George and Harold shook hands and promised to always be themselves” (p. 183). They successfully reverse their future of becoming grumpy adults and George proclaims: “You mean it’s that easy? All you have to do is make up your mind and stick to it, and you can change the future?” (p. 183). For all of the silliness and wacky adventure, it was nice to come across this more thoughtful moment, even if it is then paired by Harold’s response that keeps the scene from becoming overly sappy: “Yeah, I guess so” 

Reading this book was a nice chance to enter a world that my son loves so much. I’m not sure that I will read more of them, but I do think it is a good exercise to validate the interests of children by trying them out. He was so happy to see me reading and that made it a worthwhile experience.

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