The Adventures of Captain Underpants and its sequels and spin-offs, Dav Pilkey. Scholastic, since 1997.
One career path that’s really booming for bitter manchildren is writing gross-out books for early-elementary-age boys.
See: Captain Underpants. The series originated in 1997, but for some reason they continue to grow in popularity; reportedly, there’s even a film in the works projected for 2017.
Dav Pilkey, the very special snowflake behind the Captain, reminisces in his About the Author about “pulling pranks” and “cracking jokes” as an elementary schooler: Dav’s teacher, who was apparently literally Miss Trunchbull, reportedly told him to “straighten up” because he couldn’t “spend the rest of [his] life making silly books.”
Dav sure showed her! Take that, you dimwitted android programmed to crush the spirits of special, special little Dav! It’s not his fault he’s too creative and zany to fit in in your dreary world of “social norms” and “manners”!
So, there are a couple of issues here. First, by disliking the Captain Underpants books, I’m basically playing right into Pilkey’s Tragic Geek(TM) story—-you know, the one where we’re asked to sympathize with a boy (always a boy) who is weird and mean to everyone, and root for him to date the hottest girl in school because he deserves her for some reason? (If you’re not familiar, see the filmographies of Michael Cera, Zach Braff, Seth Rogen….actually, just go see a damn movie, because if you’re not familiar you’ve clearly never seen one.)
Anyway, I digress. The point is, I’m supposed to dislike Captain Underpants: I’m the parent. These books are supposed to be for those misunderstood kids whose parents just don’t get them, which, in the Captain Underpants universe, are all parents. Every adult in these books is a dithering idiot subject to humiliation—-particularly those who are teachers. The title character is, in fact, a caricature created by two elementary-school-aged boys of their principle, who bounces clumsily around fighting villains with names involving bodily functions in nothing but some white briefs and cape (reportedly, a creation of Pilkey as a real-life second-grader).
Some parents have really, really taken the extremely obvious bait. Like, big time. Like, banning-books-level big time. (You GUYS. When has banning a book EVER been a good idea? In what story or moment of history has anyone ever banned a book and NOT been the villain?)
Other parents and educators adore the books. In some cases, they make droll comments about how they think underpants are totally hilarious too, tee hee.These people are not me, obviously, but these people are fine.
Others are of the At Least Kids Are Reading camp. Pilkey’s books are published by Scholastic, one of the largest education publishers in the world—-these books are marketed in and to schools, specifically, with the idea that they encourage literacy.
These people…I gotta disagree, so much.
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You know the scene in Drop Dead Fred, when Phoebe Cates’s husband, who is a complete dick and has def been cheating on her, calls her by the wrong name? No? Well there’s a scene like that. And when she takes exception to it, he replies something like, “But isn’t it better that I’m saying her name here with you, than saying your name but being with her?” And Phoebe Cates is like GOOD POINT, and you (the viewer) are like OMGWTF.
The At Least Kids Are Reading people are kind of like that, to me. Like, “isn’t it better for our kids to read the very stupidest bullshit ever, than to not read at all?” And I’m like……well….maybe it’s not worse………
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Because the thing that gets me the most about these books isn’t just that they’re dumb. (And wow, they are dumb. Not campy, or kitschy, or goofy, or silly, but d-u-m dumb.) And it’s not just that the prose written from George and Harold’s perspective is riddled with misspellings (a literary device intended to make the books feel more authentic; practically speaking, it is also potentially confusing for an early reader/speller). It’s that they’re mean. Everyone is a target for ridicule and humiliation by George and Harold. The two of them are an insular duo, united against everyone else. Their antics are played off as zany and charming, and it seems that many people read them that way.
Listen, I’m a documented fan of troublemakers (see the main image of this site, for example). But I find the mean-spiritedness of George and Harold’s “humor” weirdly disturbing. Encouraging little boys to see everyone around them as nothing but a herd of oblivious sheep, incapable of comprehending the truth about anything, there to be manipulated for amusement is . . . . not a good look. That kind of arrogance and entitlement is the seed of mansplainers, ironic -isms, and, like, James Franco.
This idea that (1) boys need special pandering, because reading doesn’t come “naturally” to them, and (2) the only way boys will ever be interested in reading is by roasting everyone and everything? Hard pass.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of alternatives in this genre for this age group. There are lots of great graphic novels for young readers (which I will hopefully get to at some point on this site), but not much in the way of Pilkey’s unapologetic bathroom humor, the interactive bits like the flip-books included in each installment, or the blend of media. Though I quibble with the But Boys! reasoning above, Pilkey’s books are definitely filling some sort of void.
And the thing is, your kid will probably like these books. Literacy can be pretty intoxicating; suddenly, a brave new world opens up to you—–who wouldn’t want to test out these new powers on something specifically designed to annoy one’s parents? Fortunately the books are surprisingly free of anything truly offensive (as far as I know—-I haven’t read all of them); you’d think this level of d-baggery would come with a side of sexism or something, but it doesn’t. Pilkey’s cast of characters is also fairly diverse. When my son was in this phase, I didn’t encourage the books, but I didn’t forbid them. He lost interest fairly quickly—-butts are hilarious, but offer only so many possibilities before the humor gets stale. I’ll update this post in 20 years and let you guys know if he turns out to be the worst.