Newsmaker: Dav Pilkey

Captain Underpants creator on school libraries and everyday superpowers

April 16, 2019

Dav Pilkey (center) with his Dog Man and Captain Underpants characters
Dav Pilkey (center) with his Dog Man and Captain Underpants characters

Dav Pilkey, bestselling author of the Captain Underpants and Dog Man series, is the 2019 spokesperson for School Library Month. Observed in April and sponsored by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), School Library Month celebrates school libraries as open, equitable, and personalized learning environments necessary for every student’s well-rounded education.

Pilkey struggled with dyslexia and ADHD as a child. But being encouraged by his mother to read whatever he liked—”it didn’t matter if it was a magazine, or a comic book, or a bunch of Snoopy cartoons, or the Guinness Book of World Records,” he says—changed his life. He started drawing his Captain Underpants character in grade school, and published his first book, World War Won, in 1987. More than 80 million Captain Underpants books are in print worldwide; the character also stars in a 2017 feature film and a Netflix series. Pilkey’s latest book series, Dog Man, has more than 23 million copies in print and has been translated into more than 23 languages.

Pilkey spoke with American Libraries about the importance of reading without judgment, humor in books, and his advice for aspiring writers and artists.

As the 2019 School Library Month spokesperson, what are some of your responsibilities?

One of the things I want to especially focus on this year is the importance of school libraries in the lives of kids. Libraries changed my life. I grew up with dyslexia and a lot of reading challenges, and my mom brought me to the library and let me pick out whatever I wanted. That turned my whole life around as a reader. So I want to take some of that enthusiasm and share it with kids and let everybody know how important libraries, especially school libraries, really are.

You’ve spoken about the challenges you faced growing up with ADHD and dyslexia. This year’s theme for School Library Month is “Everyone Belongs @ Your School Library.” How can role models like teachers, librarians, and authors inspire and encourage kids to pursue their goals?

I think just by being good examples. Kids will read more if they see their family reading. If their teachers are reading and getting excited about books, book sharing, book talking, that gets kids excited about doing that with their friends. The thing is, you don’t have to be an author or a movie star to be a role model. Everyone is—teachers, parents, librarians. Everyone is a reading role model. And I think the best thing we can do is to let kids catch us reading and enjoying ourselves.

Pilkey signs autographs for admiring fans. Photo: St. Louis County (Mo.) Public Library
Pilkey signs autographs for admiring fans. Photo: St. Louis County (Mo.) Public Library

Your books are not only relatable but also hilarious. How can humor help in teaching children to read and making them lifelong readers?

I can only go by my own personal experience, and that was that humor was the most important thing for me as a kid. I loved joke books and cartoon books, and humor helped me to really decode language. I was having so much trouble with my dyslexia, but humor helped me to figure out what the words were, often because there was a funny picture associated with it or some kind of cartoon, or it would be a joke, whether it would be like some kind of logical thing that you’d have to figure out. So it all comes back to associating reading with fun. That’s an association that’s going to carry with you and going to help you to become a lifelong reader.

You’ve written several spinoffs of Captain Underpants, including the Dog Man series. What has been your favorite to draw and write, and who has been your favorite character?

I think my favorite has been the Dog Man series. It started out as my love letter to dogs because I always loved dogs, ever since I was a kid. But it’s evolving into a love letter to my parents because my parents were so supportive of me.

My two favorite characters in Dog Man are Petey the cat and Li’l Petey, and they’re kind of based on me and my mom, except the roles are reversed. I’m Petey, who’s always getting in trouble and wants to be good but doesn’t always believe in himself. And Li’l Petey is like my mom, who always supported me, always believed in me, always felt like I’d become a better version of myself, and always had my back as well. And so I love the way that the relationship between those two characters are growing and expanding as the books go on.

The Captain Underpants series made this year’s Top 11 Challenged Books list put out by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, for the reasons of the series “encouraging disruptive behavior” and Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-a-Lot featuring a same-sex couple. What it’s like to be on the list again this year?

I do consider it an honor. For me, I’m kind of just writing about myself and about the things that I see around me. And so the idea of encouraging disruptive behavior—I was a disruptive kid. I had some challenges as a kid, and so I’m really writing about myself and my experience. And with the same-sex couple in one of the books, that’s something that’s in my life too. I see that all the time. And so I’m just writing about what’s in front of me, and I think it’s really important.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers and artists?

When I talk to children, I talk about the three Ps: the first one is positivity, which is trying to have a good attitude, even if things aren’t going your way.

The next thing is practice. It’s one of the reasons why I feel like I can do what I do because I practice all the time. And if you look at the Captain Underpants books, you can see how George and Harold’s comics get better and better, their spelling gets better and better, their ideas get better and better because they practice all the time.

And the last thing is perseverance. One of my first books got rejected 23 different times before someone finally decided to publish it, and I almost gave up. And if I hadn’t persevered and kept sending it out there, I might not be where I am today. I think that’s really important for all kids to know those three things. They’re not really superpowers—they’re things that we can all do.

Update: Corrected the name of Pilkey’s first book and clarified quote about perseverance, April 16


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