Saturday, March 1, 2014

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Captain Underpants is Ruining My Son, and This is Why I Let Him Read it


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Captain Underpants is a children's novel series by American author and illustrator, Dav Pilkey. The series revolves around two fourth graders, George Beard and Harold Hutchins, and Captain Underpants, an aptly named superhero from one of George and Harold's comic books, who accidentally becomes real when George and Harold hypnotize their Machiavellian principal, Mr. Krupp.
There are 10 Captain Underpants books, and while I have never read one of them cover to cover, Tristan (my six-year-old son) has read me a few excerpts and I’ve noticed a few trends: poop, pee, farts, wedgies, and boogers.
Tristan has told me about the evil Professor Poopy Pants and the Bionic Booger Boys. He once read me the lines to a song that was in the back of one of the books. I can’t recall every line, but I recall the chorus telling me to eat poo and drink pee. Although, I must say that I could be mistaken as to what the song was really about. Perhaps it had some real insight into the human condition that was masked by Tristan’s laughter as he read the lyrics. And I probably should admit, that I had a difficult time not giggling as well. There was something about his delighted face that reminded me of being six and discussing body humor with my older brother. I would have loved these books when I was a boy. I know that, and so I understand why he is so into them.
This is not to say that I’ve grown out of gross humor. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I bring up body humor in almost every post. But I also know that there is an audience for that sort of thing. There is a time and place for it. I learned this the hard way. As a boy I seemed to always be bringing up gross humor around teachers, scoutmasters, and grandparents, and I think I earned a bad reputation. The fact that Tristan is so ready to freely read “the really funny lines” from Captain Underpants to me, his father, shows that he doesn’t understand the distinction, and I cannot decide if this is my fault or author Dav Pilkey’s.
But ultimately, I am Tristan’s father, and although I’d love to blame Pilkey for my son’s love for fart humor, I am in control. I have the power to take the books away and never give them back.
But I am conflicted.
My living room is full of books. I have many more books in my garage. I spent ten years studying writing. I write every day for at least two hours, getting up at 5:30 or 6AM and writing into the sun. I worry that I am a failure because I haven’t had much success with writing. The written word is very important to me, and I want it to be important to Tristan. I want it so much that I let Tristan read Captain Underpants late into the night. I let him read Captain Underpants on car rides and on the school bus. I let him read Captain Underpants in the living room before dinner. I let him read Captain Underpants because it seems to be the only thing he will read. He is passionate about those books. He has read all of them more than once. He has a hunger in his eye that remineds me so much of my hunger for Steinbeck or Sedaris.
 This is not to say that Pilkey is great author. Far from it. I would go as far as to say that Pilkey is a very poor writer and illustrator who uses lowbrow humor to attract his readers. But here’s the kicker, I keep pushing better books, Charlotte's Web or Harry Potter for example, and he only wants to read Captain Underpants. And I am afraid that if I take them away he won’t read at all.
What I do know is that I love when I find him in his room, well after bedtime, the lamp on his dresser still on, reading a book. And when I tell him to go to bed, he asks, “Can I stay up and finish this chapter?” I love when he reluctantly closes his book and sets it next to his dinner plate, and then I have the pleasure of watching him eat quickly, while gazing at the cover, his little face anxious to get back into the story. So for now, I will keep letting him read about George Beard and Harold Hutchins, and hope that Captain Underpants will become a gateway drug that leads to better and more rewarding literature. 

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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in Huffington Post Parents, Huffington Post Weddings, and The Good Men Project. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley


morgan said...

The issue here is not the books themselves but how to broaden his reading habits. In other words, even if he loved Charlotte's Web, you'd still want him to read something else, and not JUST Charlotte's Web over and over, right?

So look at it that way: He loves a certain kind of book--can you find him books that are similar but that also gradually introduce other subjects and plot lines and humor? I adore Charlotte's Web, but there's no similarity between that and Captain U, so of course your kid won't be interested in it.

I found this online: Soon he'll be old enough for the Bone series, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I also found this:

I agree that taking a book away simply because you (as an adult) don't like it sends the wrong message. How about striking a deal? He gets to read YOU a chapter from Captain U, and you get to read him a chapter from one of the books similar to Captain U's books that I linked to. Or take him to a bookstore, gather samples of books similar to Captain U he might genuinely like (not books you want him to like) and let him pick a couple. On top of that (but not instead of) you can read him a page or two from one of YOUR beloved children's books and see if he becomes interested--but only if you are helping him find other books that HE will enjoy.

Maybe you and your wife are exceptionally broad-minded. Maybe you immediately love all books, movies, television shows, music, comedians. Maybe you dive into all new foods, states, countries, and cultures. Or maybe, on the other hand, when trying something new, it helps when someone compares it favorably to something familiar--something that you already DO like. If you like Portland Orgeon, I wouldn't insist that you immediately love NYC or LA. But I might point out that some of the neighborhoods in NYC and LA are similar to Portland, so maybe you want to visit a "neighborhood equivalent" next time you go on vacation.

If you and your wife are the former sort (you dive into everything immediately), recognize your kid is not like you and might require dipping a toe into the water and not being forced into it. If you are the latter sort ("if you like Brideshead Revisited, you might like Downton Abbey"), then recognize your kid is similar to you, and, like you, needs to try things that are "new yet familiar."

Lastly, your kid might not be a reader. That's okay. Of course he should read and write well enough to communicate and get through school. But don't force your values on him. A deep love of literature is great but it is not for everyone. He can still grow up and have an amazing, successful, and fulfilling life without being a bookworm. Perhaps he will climb mountains or help the homeless; he may become a singer, dancer, painter, actor; perhaps he will build things, invent things, or start companies; he may be a bus driver or an athlete. He is probably very interesting on his own--you can encourage him to try many things, and don't overlook his actual interests in order to make him a mini version of you.

Lastly, I am sorry the adults in your life decided you had a "bad reputation" instead of teaching you about "time and place" when it comes to various topics. Also it's a little weird that they judged a little kid. If I met a child who made a bunch of silly jokes, I'd know it was age-appropriate, but if I wanted him to stop, I'd gently tell him so, and I'd tell him why. I cannot understand why the adults in your life did not help you that way. Anyway, if you take Captain U books away from your son, he'll just find another outlet. I think the better course of action is to do what the "grandparents and scoutmasters" did not do for you--you, as the parent, can teach your son about appropriate conversation, encourage his interests, and watch him become his own little person.

Clint said...

Morgan: What a great comment! Thank you for your direction and insight. Yes, I think I will try the one chapter from my book and one from his. Recently he has started reading The Black Lagoon books. I like them much more than Captain Underpants. I hope that this is the beginning of a trend where he starts to look for better books.