Humorous Portrayal of Bad Values – A Review of the Adventures of Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey

George Beard and Harold Hutchins, the main characters of The Adventures of Captain Underpants, are pranksters of the first order. In this installment of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, George and Harold pull an outrageous set of pranks at their elementary school football game. However, unbeknown to them their mean principal Mr. Krupp has caught all of their antics on videotape and he proceeds to use the tape to blackmail them into behaving well in school and serving his every whim.

After a few days of following Mr. Krupp’s rules, the boys remember a comic-book advertisement for a “3-D Hypno-Ring” that will allow them to hypnotize Mr. Krupp and lay hands on the incriminating videotape. George and Harold follow through with their plan, and in the process have some fun with Mr. Krupp, making him believe he is Captain Underpants–George and Harold’s favorite superhero in their homemade comic books–while he is under their hypnotic spell. Silly high jinks ensue.

This book has tremendous subjective appeal: kids will love it (mine do…). The chief thing that makes it appealing is humor. For example, Pilkey’s turn of phrase itself is often hilarious. In the introductory chapter he describes George and Harold as kids who were “usually responsible…Whenever anything bad happened, George and Harold were usually responsible.” Kids will also think the fantastic nature and scale of the boys’ pranks is funny. For example, they put black pepper in the cheerleaders’ pom-poms causing the cheerleaders to sneeze uncontrollably, they put bubble bath in the marching band’s horns so the band’s playing just ends up blowing bubbles, and they replace the football team’s muscle rub lotion with “Mr. Prankster’s Extra-Scratchy Itching Cream.” And of course the potty-humor theme throughout the book appeals to a child’s (seemingly natural, if my kids are any indication) proclivity for all things potty’ish.

Despite being genuinely funny, I give this book a low rating since it is woefully thin on developmental value. Indeed, my worry is that it will actually detract from a child’s development in character. The primary fault of the book, as I see it, is that it casts the highly questionable values of George and Harold in a positive light. For example, in chapter 2 George and Harold sneak into the school office and make several hundred copies of their Captain Underpants comic book, which they proceed to sell at a profit on the playground. Moreover, in chapter 12 when the hypnotized Mr. Krupp dashes off to fight crime as Captain Underpants, the reason the boys follow and try to stop him is that they could get in big trouble if they don’t. And of course they steal the videotape evidence of their disruptive pranks from Mr. Krupp’s office. By mixing the boys’ self-serving attitudes and acts of thievery with humor, Pilkey fosters approval of their attitudes and deeds, which, in my view, is detrimental to a child’s character development.

Also worrying is the fact that every adult-child relationship depicted in this book is adversarial: the premise of the book is an ongoing battle between the boys and Mr. Krupp. Indeed, this sort of adversarial relationship between adults and children is the underlying engine of the entire Captain Underpants series. Now, while there are mean adults in the world (exemplified by Mr. Krupp), and while there is nothing wrong with depicting them in children’s literature, without parallel examples of positive adult-child relationships the bad relationships portrayed only deepen the divide between adults and children. In my view, Roald Dahl’s Matilda is a better (though perhaps still not perfect) model of how bad adult-child relationships should be treated in children’s literature.

Finally, it is likely that most parents will also not appreciate the thoroughgoing use of potty humor in the book. While this point is admittedly more a matter of taste than of a clear failure in values, I am of the view that kids need no encouragement toward potty humor. They find their own way there often enough…

Before concluding this review, I should acknowledge several factors that do lend the book a modicum of developmental value. First, it is genuinely creative, which is a characteristic we should want our kids to encounter in their books. Second, it might well inspire some kids to read who might not do much reading ordinarily. However, in my view the negative aspects of this book far outweigh these positive features. Moreover, if the child you have in mind is struggling with motivation to read, there are other creative and funny books that will serve him or her better, such as Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Are Friends or even Dav Pilkey’s A Friend For Dragon.

In sum, I do not recommend The Adventures of Captain Underpants, and I encourage you to avoid this book and others in the Captain Underpants series.