How do I make my child a better reader?” It’s a question Dav Pilkey, creator of the hugely successful Captain Underpants and the Dog Man series (Scholastic), the Super Diaper Baby series, apart from several other books, including The Paper Boy (a picture book for which he won the Caldecott honour for his artwork in 1997), is all too familiar with. Dog Man — a franchise that has sold millions — sits right on top of The New York Times bestsellers’ list for children’s series, while Captain Underpants is at No. 8 (both books have sat on the list for years). The Dog Man series has more than 26 million copies in print to date.
Pilkey, 53, whose endearing characters have won the hearts of millions of children across the world, struggled with reading as a child on account of his ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and dyslexia. The former, that he prefers to call Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Delightfulness, often earned him a spot in the hallway, to which he was banished frequently from his grade two classroom in Cleveland, Ohio, as he was found to be “disruptive”. It was here that the characters Captain Underpants (a superhero for schoolkids) and Dog Man (a hound supercop) were created mostly while sitting alone in the hallway. It helped that he had teachers like Mr. P Ottee (which quickly became Mr. Potty) and was able to create comics that his classmates found funny. Mr Krupp, the evil principal in Captain Underpants, is also based on his own school principal at the time.
Pilkey spoke about his struggles at the Royal Opera House, Mumbai, as a part of his “DoGood” tour, a campaign which aims to highlight the many ways books (and reading) inspire. Like many children with ADHD, he had a difficult time focusing, staying still, and “behaving properly” in class. Cartooning was an outlet but many of his teachers were not too fond of it, and, once, a teacher even ripped up one of his Captain Underpants drawings in front of the entire class. Twenty years after Captain Underpants was first published, it’s now also a movie and a series on Netflix. What was the superpower that moved mountains for him? Pilkey, now based in Seattle, says, “You just think differently, and that’s a good thing. This world needs people who think differently; it’s your superpower. I want kids to know that there’s nothing wrong with you”. The auditorium full of children, many of them dressed in the cape with the message “Reading gives you superpowers” — part of the publisher’s goody bag for them — broke out in applause.
But even superpowers need nurturing. For Pilkey, it was his mother’s approach to what was considered a disadvantage by most. “‘How can we turn this into something good?,’” he recounts her saying. As someone who had 23 rejections when he set out to pitch his first book, Twas The Night Before Thanksgiving (1990), he knew what “not fitting in” was all about and how it was important to keep going.
In a way, what Pilkey is doing is trying to make books for the child he used to be. “I know what I would have picked as a child, so I try and make books that make reading feel like something fun to do — almost like eating candy. It shouldn’t seem like work,” he says, weeks before the launch of his eighth Dog Man book, Fetch 22.
Undoubtedly, Captain Underpants has turned a whole generation of non-readers into readers, but it is still not a parent’s choice of book. So what of parental intervention and the constant demand that their children “read more substantial literature”, I am curious to know. “The only thing I can say is: I was a kid who did not like to read. There was a time when I would kick a book down the stairs and say ‘I hate reading!’ My mom then decided to focus on not what I read, but that I read. She would let me pick up whatever books I wanted — books that my teacher did not like, books they would take away from me…as long as I read. And that’s what changed everything; that was the magic key. Suddenly, I could identify myself as a reader and may be it was a just 144-page joke book, but when I finished it, I said to myself, ‘Hey, I am a reader!’ And that changes your identity. Then you find another book and another book, and gradually you move on to things more substantial. As I grew older, I naturally moved on to Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau and others but I wouldn’t have moved on to these if I hadn’t been on a diet of Snoopy comics and joke books all those years. It has to start with love; and when you start identifying as a reader and connect with books through love, you start taking steps on your own.” Another superpower then? “I think reading makes you a better person. Anytime a child picks up a book they love, and read it, it makes them kinder. The more you read, the smarter you become, the more empathetic you become. I think that’s the way to change the world — by celebrating literacy and encouraging people to read more — especially kids,” he says.
(Lalita Iyer writes for little people and big people and the little people in big people)