The Hidden Value of Captain Underpants

22 May

9780439049993_xlgCaptain Underpants is a series about two fourth grade boys who accidentally hypnotize their cruel principal into becoming the superhero Captain Underpants.  The series, criticized for its offensive language and violence, has been on the “most frequently banned books” list for years, topping it in 2013.

It’s also a series that boys love. Boys are often our reluctant readers.  They enjoy informational texts, graphic novels that are long on pictures and short on words, and books about farts, wedgies, and embarrassing events.  Adults tend to emphasize books with beautiful language, important themes, or rich characters.

There’s a disconnect, and that gulf drives our boys away from reading.  I’m not a huge fan of Captain Underpants.  I find the series silly and the main characters annoying.  But I’m not a 10 year old boy.  For many elementary aged boys, the book reflects their imagination and their sense of humor.

Books like Captain Underpants also aren’t totally devoid of educational value.  Their ability to hook disengaged readers is priceless.  It doesn’t matter how awesome the book you have chosen for your 4th grader is if he refuses to read it.

The series can also be used for some more complex reading work.  The books main characters repeatedly defy authority figures that are cruel or bullying.  Children can analyze the characters’ choices–was it ok for George and Harold to play tricks on the adults, if the adults themselves were villains?  Are they heroes even though they’re acting badly, and why? Use the titles, such as Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman, for lessons on alliteration, or some of George and Harold’s misspelled writing for editing lessons.  Have students write their own “mini-comics” in the style of Dav Pilkey to get their creative juices flowing.

Students, even elementary-aged boy students, do need to be introduced to the finer works of literature and experience a wide-variety of genres.  But the number one thing a child can do to improve his or her reading level is read.  A lot.  And books like Captain Underpants will help our hardest cases become independent, enthusiastic, readers.

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