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Underachieving author

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  • Captain Underpants
It’s an intimate but basic question. What size are his tighty whiteys?
"I’m not sure," Dav Pilkey says. "Probably in the L category with a few X’s in front."
And does he favor any particular brand of brief? Apparently not.
Still, Pilkey is well acquainted with said undergarment, having sold 70 million books featuring the bald, barefoot Captain Underpants, who yells, "Tra-la-laaaa! I’m here to fight for Truth, Justice, and all that is Pre-Shrunk and Cottony!"
Wearing only white, elastic-band drawers and a red cape, the famous crime fighter (whose alter ego is a mean elementary school principal) has battled talking toilets, naughty cafeteria ladies and a particularly bionic booger boy.
Alliterative titles are de rigueur for Pilkey’s comic graphic fiction, so No. 12 in the series is "Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-a-Lot" (Scholastic, 205 pages, $9.99).
Pilkey’s been writing and drawing Captain Underpants so long (since 1997) that last year he encountered a second-generation fan — the son of a man who read Pilkey’s work as a youth.
"It was an honor and a shock at the same time," the author, 49, said recently.
Does it freak him out that his first "Captain Underpants" fans are grown? "Yes, it does." But clearly a bit of pride tempers that feeling of being old:
"Recently I’ve been hearing from people who grew up with Captain Underpants, and they cite the books as an influence. Some are now graphic artists or designers."
Dav Pilkey, who spells Dave without the "e" as homage to the mislabeled name tag he once wore for a Pizza Hut job, says he hears more from fans than he does the complainers who have put him twice on a list of most banned or challenged books.
"One of the things that I hear over and over again is that a parent will come up to me with tears in their eyes and say that ‘my child would not read. They refused to read.’
"It’s almost like they took a stand against it until they saw Captain Underpants. And when they saw it, they were just so intrigued by the cover and maybe the pictures inside, and they were like, ‘Oh, well, maybe I’ll try this.’"
When reluctant readers laugh at the graphic novels and have a good experience, they often pick up more "Underpants" and then move on to other books.
"I think sometimes all you need is one good experience to find that reading actually isn’t torture or a chore or homework — it can actually be fun," Pilkey says. "And that was the thing that changed everything for them."’
The author and his wife, Sayuri, have no children of their own. But Pilkey knows about struggling children.
"I was a little different when I was a kid," he says with a laugh.
He was talking by phone from Ohio, where he frequently visits his mother. He and his wife live in Bainbridge Island, Wash., but also spend a lot of time with her family in Japan. Pilkey says he’s always been close to his parents, and he helped care for his father during his final years.
"I had a difficult time as a child at school, and the one safe place I had in my life was my home. I had very understanding parents."
Pilkey has dyslexia, which doesn’t affect his writing or drawing, but it makes him a very slow reader, he says. And as an adult he was diagnosed with ADHD.
The young boy was both hyperactive and impulsive. "It wasn’t that I was a bad kid; I just couldn’t control myself."
As a college student, he drew and sold his first children’s book and finished his education with an associate’s degree so he could devote himself to creating books.
In his newest book, the saga of Sir Stinks-a-Lot, the villain creates a formula to turn children into robotic rule-followers.
Gym teacher Mr. Meaner "had created a formula that transformed children into highly attentive, obedient slaves," Pilkey writes.
"All he needed to do was mass-market his creation, and he would become the most powerful entity on Earth."
His story wasn’t an effort to send a message about ADHD medicines, he says:
"I guess there are some parallels to what many experts consider an overmedication of children. But I am just kind of telling a story. I really do think of this as a fictional story."
Pilkey’s "Underpants" books have some references likely to go over the heads of kids. For example, his three flying hamsterlike animals are named Tony, Orlando and Dawn, an obvious (to grown-ups, anyway) reference to the 1970s pop group.
In one of Pilkey’s "Captain Underpants" books, he writes: "From now on**, you won’t be reading any more words like heck, or tinkle, or fart, or pee-pee. No sir! Those words are highly offensive to grouchy old people who have way too much time on their hands. (**except on pages 44 and 48)"
Those are some of the "offensive" words, apparently, that put "Captain Underpants" at the top of the banned-book list last year made by the American Library Association.
Pilkey doesn’t really find it a badge of honor to be on that list, although he knows that he has had good company since Mark Twain often makes it himself for "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
The younger humorist prefers to inspire and amuse kids than criticize society.
"I think we’re all trying to do the same thing: give kids a positive experience with reading. Sometimes all it takes is one silly book to lead a kid down the path to literacy."
Jane Henderson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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