Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants books
Children's books review by P.J. Rooks
Inside Jerome Horwitz Elementary School
I'm still scraping taco sauce from the various nooks and crannies of my bathroom thanks to my four-year-old's recent -- uh, let's call it a "celebration" -- of Dav Pilkey. I guess that's what I get for reading her the entire Captain Underpants series.
And maybe I've gone too far this time. Here I've been harping ever since she was three months old on not teaching her to read but teaching her to love to read. At last the time has come to put the rubber to the road. She starts kindergarten in six weeks -- has it paid off? We'll see (though she certainly has a rich vocabulary, which is often not a good thing.)
But she's all geared up and ready for school now, thanks to Dav Pilkey and his inside view of the Jerome Horwitz Elementary School, where the mean, egg-shaped principal yells, 'Blah, blah, blah,' all day then flies out the window in his underwear and an office curtain, where the secretary and the gym teacher, Miss Anthrope and Mister Meaner, menace the children along with the rest of the staff, where the librarian, Miss Singerbrains, (which I think is supposed to sound like "singe-your-brains") has banned all books out of fear of subversion and our two heroes, George and Harold, often joined by their pet pterodactyl and a bionic hamster, travel back and forth through time in a purple port-a-potty to protect their ridiculous hero and save the day.
Now, here's what happened. George and Harold are two of the school's biggest trouble-makers but they, in a way that seems suspiciously reflective of their creator's website bio (check it out at Dav Pilkey's Extra Crunchy Website o' Fun), are really smart, nice and well-meaning boys who are bored and restless in such a structured environment. Because they can't seem to behave, their principal, Mr. Krupp, is always on their case. They find release from their oppression by writing embarrassing comic books about Mr. Krupp walking around in his underwear thinking he's a super-hero and then selling the comic books, at fifty cents a pop, to an eager audience of fellow students. It's all straightforward enough until one day, when George and Harold are in so much trouble they reasonably decide that they will probably never see a moment's freedom again, they attempt to hypnotize Mr. Krupp with a mail-order 3-D Hypno-Ring and -- surprise -- it works! Krupp rips off his clothes, yells a triumphant, 'Tra-la-laaaa!' and jumps out the window. And the adventure begins.
Later on, trying to return Krupp to the real world, George throws water on his head, heedless of the fine print on the 3-D Hypno-Ring instructions that warn that throwing water on the head of a hypnotized person will cause them to "slip back and forth from trance to reality whenever they hear the sound of fingers snapping." Oops -- and as George and Harold like to say, "Here we go again!" After all, in a school full of unruly children, there is a lot of finger-snapping. Then, in one of the sequels, Krupp accidentally drinks a large dose of super power juice and becomes a true, though completely incognizant, superhero.
So, tra-la-laaaa, what are these great, must-read adventures? Here's a list:
The series also has a spin-off, purportedly a graphic novel by George and Harold themselves, The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby, and according to the website, another one coming in a little over a month, The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future.
There are, I think, four reasons why these books should be read by grown-ups to kids. First, okay, it's really stupid humor -- but it's funny. Pilkey has also loaded these books with a lot of jokes that are really aimed at a much older crowd. For all the silly, little-kid fun, there are a lot of very dry, tongue-in-cheek comments that older kids or parents would appreciate. I did anyway.
Take this one, for example, from Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part Two:
"He had politely pointed out the No Skateboarding signs, but the skateboarders refused to go away. So Captain Underpants had no choice but to snap their skateboards in half with his kung-fu kicking action.
Then it was spankings for everyone!
'Dude!' cried one of the skateboarders. 'That little dude just, like, duded our dudeboards.'
'Dude,' said another skateboarder. 'I'm gonna dude that dude if it's the last dude I dude!'"
Hmmm... how to explain that one to a four-year-old...
Second -- and it seems that Pilkey probably had a lot of fun with this -- the comic works of George and Harold are included in the books, but they are horrible, horrible spellers. Their misspellings are funny, again to an older crowd, but could be really confusing for kids trying to learn to read or spell.
Third, Pilkey is a great writer. Kids will pick up a lot of fun new words from his books (not all of them naughty, which, of course, they already knew anyway). He also does a fantastic job of leading the plot. Reading these books to my daughter that are a little too old for her, I'm very much in the habit of stopping every so often to explain what's going on a little more and make sure she's understanding the plot. With Pilkey's books, though, that became totally unnecessary and I often found that something I had just explained was the subject of the next page anyway.
The fourth (and last) reason: reading them to your child is a great excuse for getting to read them yourself.
And oh yeah -- I almost forgot -- my daughter loved them too!
Finally, here's the bad news. If you're wanting to check them out from the library, you'll probably have to wait. After all, it's summer vacation and, at least in our library, these don't seem to have a very long shelf-life before some little hand snatches them up and takes them away. You can put a hold on them, though, or better yet, get your very own set to keep so you can re-read them in secret whenever you want.
Dav Pilkey's "squishy" is one sure to be appreciated by fans of the old ketchup splatter. Remember that one? You'd swipe a few ketchup packets from the school cafeteria then take them outside, fold them over and then stomp, blasting forth a dizzying spew of ketchup and laughter. Pilkey's squishy takes it one step further. In the Captain Underpants books, George and Harold terrorize the entire school one day by folding ketchup packets and, instead of exploding them safely outdoors, they strategically place them under the little feet on the bottom side of the toilet seat. Anybody who sits down gets a nasty surprise. This was what my daughter decided would be the most constructive use of the two taco sauce packets she found in her dad's truck. Luckily for me, well, she is four, and there was a great deal of tipping off. "Mommy, you need to come into the bathroom now. I promise I didn't do anything to the toilet." Thus alerted, we were able to conduct the squishy in an experimental manner in which no one was splattered or offended, but it still made a huge mess.
Read more of P.J.'s children's book reviews.
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