The Adventures of Captain Underpants: ‘There is a part of me that just never grew up’

Nandana James | Updated on December 06, 2019

American writer of children’s books and graphic artist Dav Pilkey on making children laugh — and read

Dav Pilkey often found himself in the school hallway, turned out of class by his elementary school teachers who didn’t know how to deal with his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. It was while he waited outside that he began to draw and create comics, which catapulted him into the award-winning and bestselling children’s author and illustrator he is now.

It was within the precincts of his Ohio school’s hallway that Pilkey, as a second-grader, created his comic characters — Captain Underpants (a superhero from a comic book who comes alive) and Dog Man (a police officer who is part man and part dog). The series based on these characters have sold around 100 million copies. The Seattle-based author (53) is also the creator of over 60 children’s books, including the Dragon series, the Dumb Bunnies series, Dog Breath and The Paperboy.


Pilkey was in India recently — his first visit to the country — and interacted with children at an event of live drawing sessions and presentations hosted by the publishers Scholastic India. BLink caught up with him in Mumbai for a quick chat.


Yours is an inspiring journey. And you have, in the past, credited ADHD and dyslexia for your success. How would you describe their role in shaping your career?

Well, I think ADHD and dyslexia have both inspired me as a writer, because they make me more aware of my readers, that not everybody reads the same way, not everybody comes from the same place and that we all have different comprehension levels. Some people are visual learners like me; some people learn in a more traditional way. And, because of the difficult challenges I had, I think it makes me more sensitive as a writer, and I hope that translates into my stories.

Because I was often misbehaving, I was sent to the hallway. And because I was in the hallway all the time, it gave me a chance to draw and to think. I always wanted to connect with my classmates who were in the class, (while) I was in the hall. So, I would make stories, I would make comics and I would get a lot of feedback — because the kids wanted to read my comics when they eventually saw me and the feedback helped me as a writer too. I was constantly creating new things, showing them and watching them to see whether they laughed at certain jokes... their feedback was really important to me. I continued that all the way through high school and even into college — making stories. So, I think being separated at an early age from my classroom benefited me in a lot of ways, as far as how my career turned out.

How have your interactions with children shaped your work?

It’s really my favourite part of the job — to meet kids, to meet families, to see the enthusiasm and to know that the books are reaching an audience and the kids are loving (them)... I do get a lot of satisfaction or a lot of warm feelings knowing that a lot of the kids who are growing up with the same challenges that I had are finding hope, I think, in my story. They are realising that they are not alone, that there is some old guy like me who grew up with some of the same challenges and turned out okay.

Have you considered any other genre apart from children’s books?

I haven’t really considered any other age group. I really do like the age group that I write for (laughs). There’s so much joy and enthusiasm when I stand in front of a stage. The kids are right there with me, and they are shouting out the answers or jumping out of their seats. You don’t get that if you are writing for adults where everyone is sitting very quietly and raising their hands... You don’t have anybody jumping around! So, I love my audience. I don’t think I would ever write for a different type of audience.

How do you keep the inner child alive, so to speak?

I don’t know, I think there is a part of me that just never grew up. I spend a lot of time daydreaming. I think that’s just the way my brain works. I don’t have a cell phone. I try not to spend too much time looking at the screen. I really try to spend a lot of time in nature, use my imagination and I think that’s where a lot of kids are at too. Kids are so imaginative, especially in the 7-10 age group, they’re always using their imagination; they are coming up with stories. So, there’s a part of me that never stopped being that kid.

In this digital age where you tend to find kids engrossed in an iPad or games, how would you perceive the landscape for children’s literature unravelling and, within that, of comics and cartoons?

Oh, I have an iPad and do sometimes surf the web. And I watch cartoons. I understand the appeal of all those things. But I think we need to make room for everything and so we need to carve out time for reading. What makes reading more appealing in this digital age... is when kids are given the opportunity to choose their own books. If kids can make their own choices, they are much more inclined not only to open a book and read it, but also to finish it. And finishing a book is key to moving on to the next book.

Nandana James


Published on December 04, 2019

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