Second Thoughts on Captain Underpants

"The books are awesome, cool, and inappropriate," said 8-year-old Dustin Snowadzky, whose mother, Marcie Roth, somewhat wearily confirmed the books' appeal to those amused by "arm farts, burping contests, dirt, and potty humor."
Captain Underpants Beth Nissen, CNN July 11 2000

We carry Captain Underpants books in our Specialty Chapter-books box, along with Ricky Ricotta and Baby Mouse. We've found the books useful and effective in the past, and probably always will.


I was reading The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby and was troubled by the grammar and spelling errors in the text.

Those who know me know that I often delight in unorthodox spelling and word choice, as well as in slightly rebellious children's literature (Mortimer refusing to be quiet, Jillian simply having to create one more game). And I recognized that the text I was reading was being presented as one of George and Harold's hand made books.

So why was I so vexed at Pilkey's writing in this instance?

Am I turning into a grumpy old man?

According to Wikipedia, Captain Underpants holds sixth place in the American Library Association's "most frequently challenged books" for 2002. But most challenges have to do with the toilet talk and challenges to authority. My complaint is a little different. I don't like his unnecessarily confusing use of homonyms.

Unnecessary in that the Captain Underpants books are full of lots of other kinds of rebellion (the characterizations and storylines, the way people are drawn, the crass words they use, the fonts and format). To use improper spelling was another way to be rebellious, yes. But it was only another way - not the only or main way.

Confusing in that the children reading might well not know the differences between "there" and "their" or "whose" and "who's" or "to" and "too." Nor, in reading these books, would they be likely to learn.

According to the CNN story, Pilkey says "he created the books with the interests of uninterested readers in mind."
"I wanted kids who hate reading to find these books irresistible," he said. "I had a lot of reading problems growing up. It used to take me forever to read and comprehend stuff, so I decided not to make the Captain Underpants books TOO challenging."
The story goes on to say "while the plots of the stories are very silly, the writing has wit and sophistication."
Sentences are salted with vocabulary-building words, used in clear and helpful context: "hideous," "convenient," "merciless," "gullible." Young readers are exposed to compound sentences, the concept of synonyms, and alliteration, to which Pilkey is particularly prone.

The books encourage children to not only read words, but to play with them, like toys.

Well, maybe. My perception is kids like borrowing and looking through Captain Underpants, and like borrowing and reading Pilkey's more straight-forward Ricky Ricotta stories.

Besides, it's quite possible to play with words through puns or logic problems without arbitrarily replacing "threw" with "through." Imagine if Lewis Carroll had used more overt scatological humour besides penning things like "Jam yesterday and jam tomorrow, but never jam today."

From the nonsense poem "Antigonish" -
Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away
- to William Steig's "Pete's A Pizza" the world is filled with books using playful language. If these books aren't as successful today as Captain Underpants, it can hardly be because the latter has more "wit and sophistication."

"I've learned never to underestimate the sense of humor of a kid," Pilkey told CNN. "But does it matter if the joke flies over a kid's head? No. As long as my girlfriend thinks it's funny, it stays." Sure.

But what if you're undermining their vocabulary, Dave?

I know I'm sensitive to this because I spend time helping adult learners with their speaking and writing vocabulary. I don't blame them or their families for not being sure which "there" to use. But neither do I see any merit in offering their children books which further confound the problem.

Books are... trusts. In them we store our language and history and culture. Through them we talk to others across space and time. We authors owe our readers and our common language a certain amount of care and sobriety.

So, sure, call your villain "Professor Poopypants." But help your reader out by capitalizing correctly. Laugh, in ridiculous fonts, when George and Harold glue the librarian to her books. But don't spell the scene wrong. All you're doing in that case is making it harder for real kids to access books.

Mind you, I may be wrong. Maybe I'm wrong.

But I spend so many hours helping grown-ups understand which spelling to use when. Makes me reluctant to be cavalier about it when I'm reading with their kids.

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