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You are in:  Reading | Undercover With Captain Underpants

Undercover With Captain Underpants

By Jackie E. Stallcup

At our family Christmas gathering a few years ago, my nine-year-old niece, Olivia, informed me that she had stopped reading Barbara Park's "Junie B. Jones" books. "Oh?" I said, "What are you reading now?" "Captain Underpants!" she shouted. Her mother rolled her eyes, but I was delighted. Soon we were chatting away about the latest exploits of our quirky hero.

With The Adventures of Captain Underpants (1997), Dav Pilkey inaugurated a series of children's books that relate the adventures of two fourth-graders, Harold and George. Although these mischievous pranksters are the bane of their teachers' existence, Pilkey emphasizes they are not "bad" kids but that they do have a "silly streak a mile long." Moreover, while not straight-A students, they are smart in ways that can't be "measured by quizzes or worksheets." Indeed, Pilkey sympathizes with class clowns, kids with attention-deficit problems, and other square pegs who don't fit neatly into schools' round holes.

Among George and Harold's unconventional accomplishments are self-produced comics featuring "Captain Underpants," a superhero who uses "Wedgie Power" to fight for "Truth, Justice and All that is Pre-Shrunk and Cottony." Mr. Krupp, their mean-spirited principal, confiscates these comics but is frustrated in his attempts to control the boys until he catches one of their elaborate pranks on video and blackmails them. In desperation, the boys hypnotize him, steal the incriminating evidence, and—in a burst of inspiration—make him think that he is Captain Underpants. Their principal then dashes about in his BVDs and a red cape, capturing bank robbers and thwarting the nefarious Dr. Diaper. The boys finally bring him out of his trance by dumping water on him but, from then on, whenever he hears fingers snapping, Mr. Krupp rips off his clothing and stands forth proudly as Captain Underpants.

Captain Underpants BooksWhen I read Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets, I laughed my head off and The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby had me rolling on the floor. Like millions of kids who have turned Captain Underpants into a best-selling phenomenon, I find the books hilarious. But that's not the case with all adults. Given the books' potty humor (with their many joking references to poop, barf, boogers, and farts), the American Library Association reports that the series is one of the ten most complained about books in the nation--after J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books but ahead of offerings by Judy Blume.

There's nothing surprising about that: Youngsters often embrace the very things adults find offensive. But adults may have another reason to object: grown-ups are made to look foolish in these books. Take Captain Underpants. As Principal Krupp, he is a cruel and hypocritical blackmailer; and when hypnotized, he races around in his underwear with a curtain from his office window for a cape. Readers are encouraged to laugh at this silly authority figure.

Wicked WedgieBut there's more to these clever books than just ridicule of adults. There are comic references to other books (for example, in a nod to Judy Blume, a chapter in Poopypants is titled "Are You There, God? It's Us, Fluffy and Cheeseball"). There is visual humor (in Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman, the Wicked Wedgie Woman's hair occasionally spells out messages in sign language). There is also clever word play (say aloud the names of Ms. Ribble, Mr. Meaner, and Miss Anthrope). Finally, there are unexpected "lessons"—including my favorite from The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby which sums up what the whole Underpants series is about: "Think for yourself. Question Authority. Read banned books! Kids have the same constitutional rights as grown-ups!!! Don't forget to boycott standardized testing!!!"

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The Adventures of Captain Underpants
By Dav Pilkey
The Blue Sky Press/Scholastic, Inc., $4.99 (Paperback)
Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets
By Dav Pilkey
Scholastic, Inc., $4.99 (Paperback)
Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds)
By Dav Pilkey
Scholastic, Inc., $4.99 (Paperback)
Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants
By Dav Pilkey
Scholastic, Inc., $4.99 (Paperback)
Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman
By Dav Pilkey
Scholastic, Inc., $4.99 (Paperback)
The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby
Scholastic, Inc., $4.99 (Paperback)
Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets
By Dav Pilkey
Scholastic Inc., $4.99 (Paperback)
Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 2:The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers
By Dav Pilkey
Scholastic Inc., $4.99 (Paperback)
Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People
By Dav Pilkey
Scholastic, Inc., $4.99 (Paperback)

 

About the Author
Jackie E. Stallcup is an Associate Professor of English at California State University, Northridge. She writes frequently about children's books and child raising.


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