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Thursday, February 20, 2014

February 20, 2014: YA Lit: Captain Underpants

[Recently the boys and I have moved into chapter books, including the wonderful John Bellairs series. So in honor of that next stage of reading, a series on AmericanStudying chapter books and Young Adult lit. Please add your favorites, memories, and ideas for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On the undeniable appeal of silliness, and a drawback to it.
If I had to pinpoint one series that truly brought my boys into the world of chapter books, I would definitely highlight Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series. It’s difficult to sum up the books in a simple sentence (or three), but they include two of the most delightfully mischievous protagonists ever created, a grumpy principal who turns into a tighty-whitey wearing superhero, comic book texts within the text, villains who tap directly into the schoolboy delight in the gross and grosser, and, of course, the magic of Flip-o-Rama. While those elements all appeal most especially to the ten-and-under set, Pilkey also uses a meta-textual style and other small touches (such as wryly hilarious chapter titles) that reward any adult who happens to be reading the books to his or her kids.
The book’s are about an un-educational as it’s possible to get, and—to go back to the topic of yesterday’s post for a moment—I certainly would imagine that any attempt to read them in a classroom setting would lead to instant and likely successful challenges. That’s understandable, but the truth, as I saw first-hand with my boys, is that a central goal—perhaps the most crucial goal—of any early reading chapter book is simply to get kids reading in those extended and focused ways, period. It was so rewarding to see the boys able to stay with the Captain Underpants books over multiple nights, across more than two dozen chapters, following plot threads and remembering details and enjoying the way a story can unfold in that form. And certainly Pilkey’s books have been gateway drugs into numerous other chapter books and series, some (like the subject of tomorrow’s post) just as silly, but many (like John Bellairs’ thrillers, or Beverly Cleary’s Ralph S. Mouse books) entirely different from Captain Underpants.
So I think that if we devalue silliness and even disgustingness, at least in such early reading books, we do an injustice to what it can help bring about. But on the other hand, there’s a part of the Captain Underpants silliness—and, I feel, of many similarly silly and over-the-top entertainments for young boys—that I find far more disturbing and potentially destructive. Harold and George, the two young protagonists, hate school, focus in that space only on finding a way to turn the school day into an extended prank—and everything about the world of their school seems designed to reinforce those attitudes. And whereas other aspects of the series’ silliness feel unique and organic to its stories and worlds, this nascent anti-intellectualism (a big word for it, but I think an accurate way to describe the thoroughgoing contempt the series demonstrates for any and all aspects of education) feels shoe-horned in because it’s “cool.” And that, frankly, is a message—especially for young boys—that’s not at all silly, but dead serious, and in the worst ways.
Last YA favorite tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What YA lit favorites and memories would you share?

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