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Captain Underpants Author Flies into Boise

Dav Pilkey on superheroes, potty humor and not fitting in

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The hushed voices in Boise's libraries have gotten a little louder this spring. Whispers about a visit from children's author Dav Pilkey have many young readers struggling to contain their excitement.

"We haven't done as much marketing as we normally do because as soon as it got out there, it was, 'Did you know Dav Pilkey is coming, did you know Dav Pilkey is coming?'" said Sarah Kelley-Chase, librarian at the Boise Public Library Cole and Ustick branch.

Word of the author's visit isn't just a schoolyard rumor. Pilkey's publisher, Scholastic Inc., chose Kelley-Chase out of 3,000 librarians who entered a sweepstakes to win a visit from the acclaimed author of the Captain Underpants series.

Though she isn't sure how many visitors to expect at Boise Public Library's Main Branch, Thursday, April 18, Kelley-Chase said she hasn't stopped fielding questions from library visitors.

"It spread like wildfire," she said.

Kelley-Chase spends her days interacting with kids from nearby Morley Nelson Elementary School. She said for many young readers, including her 11- and 13-year-old children, the Captain Underpants series is an early introduction to longer books.

"Especially in summer, when kids are looking for stuff to zip through," she said.

The first book in the series, The Adventures of Captain Underpants, was published in 1997 and has since spawned numerous titles with silly, alliterative names like Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers, published January 2013.

Pilkey told Boise Weekly his career as a children's author began with his classroom doodles in grade school, much to the chagrin of his teachers.

"Elementary school and high school were really hard for me. I had a really tough time," Pilkey said. "I had some learning problems and some reading problems--I was never officially diagnosed with ADHD, but I had all the symptoms. It wasn't a good time for me."

Pilkey would often spend class time doodling and making up stories, much like the two main characters in his books: Harold Hutchins and George Beard. The mischievous fourth-graders attend Jerome Horwitz Elementary School, and consistently cause trouble for their teachers.

The pair also make use of an unattended copy machine to publish comics about Captain Underpants, a superhero clad in only a cape and a pair of tighty-whities, who fights evil villains with the help of the two boys.

"The comics that George and Harold do in the books inspire kids to do their own comics. Every week we get a packet from Scholastic, and you open them up and you see all these comics that students have sent in," Pilkey said.

While Captain Underpants is a big draw for readers, Harold and George are the real focus of the stories, according to Pilkey.

"I didn't want the book to be a story about a superhero, I really wanted it to be about a kid or two kids who just didn't fit in with school," he said.

George and Harold's principal, Benjamin Krupp, often chastises the boys for their comics, and is based on school principals Pilkey had growing up.

An underlying message, he said, is that kids like George and Harold don't have to get straight A's to be good kids.

"Not everybody is successful in school," said Pilkey. "That's not necessarily a bad thing. You're not going to be a failure in life if you don't do well in school. It doesn't quite work that way."

While children may flock to Pilkey's silly stories about robots and talking toilets, some parents have expressed concern with the subject matter--wedgies, contempt of authority and villains with names like "Tippy Tinkletrousers" and "Professor Poopypants."

But Pilkey said parents often understand deeper moral themes after reading the books.

"I do kind of understand where some of those parents might be coming from. This is another thing I hear from parents: 'When I first saw it, I thought, Oh, I don't know,'" said Pilkey. "But then they read it, and it's not just a bunch of toilet jokes, they're actually very clever. 'No wonder my kid likes them.'"

Parents like Kelley-Chase noticed that kids are especially keen to read the Captain Underpants series when school-assigned titles haven't inspired them.

"We encourage parents: Let your kids read magazines, if that's what they're into. Or graphic novels. Though there aren't as many words, per se, there's all this underlying text, and subtext," said Kelly-Chase. "They're learning the story and they're learning how to read, as well. They're looking across the page, and they're looking for their clues. It's a great way to get involved."

Pilkey said parents often tell him that their kids weren't enthusiastic about reading until Captain Underpants came along.

"They couldn't wait to get into it, and then they couldn't put it down," said Pilkey. "A lot of parents are emotional about that, and thought their kids would never be readers. Books don't have to be torture. It doesn't have to be an assignment, it can be fun."

Pilkey also plans to make his visit to the Boise Public Library fun. On his tours, he requests to sit down and individually meet with children and sign their books, rather than just give a talk.

"I do like to talk to every kid. I like to see what other books they like, what they're into. That really makes book-signing worthwhile for me, that personal connection," he said.

Even after spending years writing about wacky characters, Pilkey continues to be inspired by his readers.

"I'm very honored to have this job. It feels like, in some silly way, my books are making a difference," he said.

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