If you have a school-aged child then the chances are good that you have run into one of Dav Pilkey's* books at some point. He is the author and illustrator of the wildly successful Captain Underpants series of graphic novels and spin off series, Dog Man and spin off spin off series, Cat Kid Comic Club. He's also responsible for a number of picture books and early readers.
Pilkey's work is typified by an irreverent sense of humour that is quite often concerned with bodily functions; farts, poo, and snot making regular appearances. So far, so gross. When it comes to kids these are easy, sure-fire ways to keep them amused and engaged. You might even, if you were of a mind to, characterise this approach as "lazy" but do so in the case of Pilkey's works would be a mistake, for a couple of reasons.
The first is that Pilkey's toilet humour is nothing if not full committed. It doesn't come off as lazy as much as zealous. Literal toilets come to life and try and eat children. Science experiments result in huge monsters made of snot. There are no throwaway farts - they are all world-destroying and epic. Kids love these wild adventures, and who could blame them.
The other is that for reluctant readers this stuff is pure gold. You and I may not feel a delicious thrill reading the word "poo" but do not underestimate what a drawcard this is for the primary school set. Pilkey writes stories filled with jokes that kids LOVE and while I barely remember a time when I didn't love reading, this is not true of everyone - sucking them in with gross humour and ridiculous escapades might just be the thing that turns a reader from being reluctant to enthusiastic, and when it comes to child literacy, enjoyment is key. This is something that Pilkey seems to understand on a fundamental level - as someone who was diagnosed as having ADHD and dyslexia as a child, he gets that it's not always easy for some kids to get into reading but that the benefits if they do are persistent and far-ranging.
And there is much more to Pilkey's books than just gross-out humour. Certainly through his Dog Man series, and latterly, Cat Kid Comic Club, there's a strong vein of "Pilkosophy", the main tenets of which are:
- Nobody's perfect. We are all works in progress. Trying is important. Make mistakes. Fail miserably.
- “Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet”**
- It's not enough to be good, you gotta DO good.
- Being creative is scary but you should do it anyway.
- You can choose to see the world as a terrible place or a wonderful one. The latter is so much more rewarding.
Some of these messages are delivered in such tender, touching moments that I have had to stop reading with my child because I was crying too much. This happened when we were reading the latest Pilkey title, Cat Kid Comic Club: Influencers, together and my child confessed that he, too had cried a little bit at that part when he first read it (accompanied by a reassuring pat on the arm). And then we got to talk about why we had those feelings and how sometimes crying just feels good when you're feeling a lot of emotions.
There's also a story-arc played across the Dog Man series that explores how having bad experiences as a child can lead people to make bad choices, but that change is possible, and that doing good is a choice you get to make every day. I've watched HBO "prestige dramas" with less character development than has been gifted, by Pilkey, to Petey, The World's Most Evilest Cat. I'm not kidding when I say that Petey's parenting journey has genuinely helped shape my notion of what being a good parent is for, what it means, and how it can heal. Plus one time Dog Man's colleagues cried so much the police station filled with tears and they had to use snorkels, lol.
There are so many different levels on which you can enjoy these stories!
So this is me saying not only is it okay for your child to read a graphic novel in which there's a character named "Chubbs McSpiderbutt"... you should read it too. Read it aloud, do silly voices, talk about the characters' feelings, just get in there and enjoy, because that's what reading's for!
- Titles by Dav Pilkey in our collection
- Graphic novels and comics for kids
- Staff list: Best of 2023 - Children's Graphic novels
- Planet Pilkey, kid-friendly fun from Scholastic
- Dav Pilkey's official website
*After years of reading this man's books, I have only just learned that his name, though the spelling suggests a possibly welsh (?) variant of David, is actually pronounced "Dave". This springs from a misspelled name tag he once had at an early job in a pizza restaurant and he has adopted it as his preferred spelling!
**For all its fart jokes how many kids' books have you read that quoted Maya Angelou?! And the literary references by no means stop there...