What we’re reading: Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers

Captain Underpants is no Harry Potter. But if it appeals to reluctant readers, we're okay with that. (Courtesy of Scholastic)
Captain Underpants is no Harry Potter. But if it appeals to reluctant readers, we’re okay with that. (Courtesy of Scholastic)

Sometimes, as much as it hurts, you have to read the books your kids like, rather than the books you want them to read. For years, I’ve been dreaming about sharing the Harry Potter series with my children, ages 7 and 10. I devoured them (as an adult) and couldn’t wait until my kids were old enough to read and discuss them with me.

Things didn’t exactly go according to plan. I cracked open “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” last fall, but a few pages in, they declared it boring and asked to switch to another book. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? How can you not be completely enchanted with Harry and his band of misfit friends?

So here we are reading the (ahem) Captain Underpants books by Dav Pilkey instead. Specifically, we’re working our way through “Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers.” There’s nothing explicitly wrong with the Captain, but from my adult perspective, bathroom humor and a superhero in underwear are cheap gimmicks. Clearly the books’ target audience, the elementary school-age set, disagrees.

The series topped the American Library Association’s list of “Most Banned Books” in 2012, with people complaining about offensive language. There is lots of toilet talk, sure (Professor Poopypants comes to mind) but that hardly constitutes “offensive language.” That’s just knowing your audience.

One of my kids is a reluctant reader. So hey, if the adventures of mischievous fourth-graders Harold and George and the principal who transforms into Captain Underpants can inspire him to pick up a book, well, we will read Captain Underpants. Hearing my son’s belly laughs at the idea of a talking toilet kind of (almost) makes the book palatable.

The graphic-novel style and short chapters are good, quick hits for him. There aren’t too many words on a page, and the lines of type have lots of space between them, making it easier to scan the text. And did I mention bathroom humor? Lots and lots of bathroom humor at every turn. In the eyes of my fourth-grader, that is a huge plus. There are also plenty of wordplay names, such as George and Harold’s teacher Ms. Tara Ribble, or science teacher Mr. Morty Fyde. 

I’d put in a vote, though, to get rid of the “Flip-O-Rama” chapters, where you have to rapidly move a page back and forth to make it look like the pictures are moving (old-school animation flip book style). I’m not a fan, because it’s hard for both children to see the pictures at the same time. Otherwise, the kids are enjoying the books and I’m, well, surviving them just fine. It’s no “Charlotte’s Web,” for sure. Maybe that is okay, though. At least we’re reading, right?

But I’m still holding out hope that Harry Potter can make a comeback.

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Mari-Jane Williams edits community news for Local Living.
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Mari-Jane Williams · May 12