SLJ talked to Dav Pilkey about the creative process behind his books, working with DreamWorks to turn Captain Underpants into a 3-D animated movie, and, of course, Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers (Scholastic)—the ninth installment of his sublimely silly novels.
What made you decide to take George and Harold back in time to kindergarten?
I really wanted to do something different. I thought it would be fun to see what the boys would do if they got into a jam and DIDN’T have a superhero to “snap” them out of it. What if all they had to rely on were their imaginations and a bunch of silly pranks?
This one has a strong anti-bullying message. Does it have anything to do with the subject making headlines almost every day?
Not really. To me, all of the Captain Underpants stories have anti-bullying themes. It’s just that the bullies in the previous books are grown-ups. This new book is the first time the bullies are other kids.
Were you bullied in school?
I wasn’t really bullied too much in school by other kids. I WAS bullied by grownups at my school, though. I had some really cruel teachers and a principal who was physically abusive to me and a lot of other kids. I guess I handled it the way most kids do. Fortunately, I had good parents, and I was able to get through it. Eventually, I moved to a different school and things got better.
Captain Underpants has inspired so many reluctant readers to pick up books. I once gave a teacher some of your books to give her son. She literally started to cry and thanked me because she said he finally loves reading and carries your books in his backpack. Do you think about these things while writing?
It’s so rewarding to hear stories like that. I think I was a lot like the son of your teacher friend when I was a kid. Reading was a real challenge for me. It’s not that I wasn’t smart, it’s just that I learned differently than most of the other kids in my class. I remember how hard it was for me to find a chapter book that I was interested in reading. My school librarian used to get frustrated because it took FOREVER for me to pick out a book to read. She’d finally shove a book in my hands and say, “HERE! You’re a boy! Read this book about football!” (I was even less interested in football than I was in reading). When I began writing chapter books, I purposefully designed the Captain Underpants books to appeal to kids who, like me, either didn’t like to read, or who had reading challenges. This meant the books had to have very short chapters, a high picture-to-text ratio, lots of mini-comics and novelty “Flip-O-Rama” pages, and ridiculously humorous stories and cartoons. I really made these books for the kid I used to be.
Tell us a little about the creative process behind Captain Underpants? How long does it usually take to write one?
I spend a lot of time thinking about the books before I ever write a word of text. Once I get a good idea for a story, I start sketching pictures and writing down ideas and jokes in notebooks. This process usually takes about three months. The actual writing takes another three months, and the illustrations often take six months or longer to complete. About one solid year of my life goes into each book.
This is your ninth Captain Underpants? How do you keep coming up with ideas?
Kids really inspire me. I’m constantly amazed by their energy and enthusiasm. I get a lot of fan mail that really encourages me, too. Every time I open a big envelope and a child’s homemade comic book falls out, I feel so honored to have this job. In some small way, it feels like my silly books are making a difference in the world—inspiring kids to laugh and read and be creative. To me, that’s very motivating.
A lot of people—even some librarians—still don’t consider comics real reading. Care to comment?
That’s a prejudice that’s unfortunately quite common in the United States. Other countries, especially in Europe and Asia, consider graphic novels to be a very legitimate, even sophisticated form of art and literature.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of kids have a very difficult time when it comes to reading. It can be a frustrating time, especially when kids are making the transition from picture books to chapter books. That’s a HUGE step, and there’s a good chance that some kids might get overwhelmed and give up on reading altogether. Comics can help with this transition because the pictures give contextual clues to the meanings of the words. This helps with reading comprehension, and can give kids the confidence and skill they need to tackle more challenging books, including the classics.
What’s one of the most moving things you’ve heard a kid or librarian say about your work?
Your books turned me (or my kid, student, grandchild, etc.) into a reader.
Did libraries play a role in your life while growing up?
Sadly, the public library in my town was about the size of a school bus, and the entire children’s section could have fit in the trunk of my car. My school library was even worse. Fortunately, I was exposed to lots of great books every month thanks to Scholastic Book Clubs. They always had a way of making books seem like candy. Sometimes, I even spent my own money on books.
How important are librarians in spreading the word about your books?
Very important. Part of the reason that Captain Underpants has been around for 15 years is because librarians have been championing these books to kids and their parents.
I know there are ebooks of Super Diaper Baby. Why aren’t there any for Captain Underpants? Would you consider turning any of your books into an interactive app?
I can’t give away too many details at this time, but there are lots of Captain Underpants e-things “in development.”
What made you finally agree to turn Captain Underpants into a movie? How involved are you in the whole process, including casting and screenplay?
When I found out that DreamWorks Animation wanted to make a 3-D animated movie, I couldn’t resist. As far as my role in the creative process goes, DreamWorks Animation has been very good about offering me as much involvement as I want. The great thing about DreamWorks Animation, however, is that they don’t need my help. They really know what they’re doing.
Are you ever amazed at how popular Captain Underpants has become?
Yes and no. I tried to design these books so they’d be irresistible to kids, so I guess I’m not surprised that kids like them so much. The thing that always amazes me, though, is when my books show up in popular culture. I’m so “close” to my characters that I’m still shocked when they’re mentioned in a movie or a TV show.
One night my wife and I were watching “The Big Bang Theory”, and one of the characters was holding a full page illustration from my book, The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future. We both screamed and pointed at the TV like a couple of monkeys.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on one of George and Harold’s full-length graphic novels. It’s all about their new character, “Dog Man,” who appeared for the first time in Captain Underpants #9.
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