Defending Captain Underpants

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Hang on to your underwear and red curtains, because Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie hits theatres on June 2nd. This new animated film is based on the first book in the popular graphic novel series by author/illustrator Dav Pilkey.

The Captain Underpants books have sold over 70 million copies, but have also received their share of negative attention. While the movie poster proclaims its hero to be “50% hero, 100% cotton,” purists argue that the content of the books is 90% trash. Will your child’s literacy skills be flushed away if you allow them to read these glorified comic books overflowing with toilet humour and misspelled speech bubbles?

Never fear, dear readers. While traditionalists might prefer to see children sitting primly reading Anne of Avonlea, there are valid reasons to endorse graphic novels as a legitimate option for today’s young readers.

“I don’t believe there is such a thing as garbage reading,” says Lauren King-Mieske, an elementary teacher with the Waterloo Region District School Board. “In my opinion, any age-appropriate book that gets a child excited about reading is a worthwhile choice.”

Here are five positive things that graphic novels bring to the table:

  1. Variety

For any new skill, whether it’s riding a bike or reading, young learners are only going to improve if they spend time doing it. “Reading takes practice,” says King-Mieske, “and it’s beneficial for emerging readers to be exposed to a variety of formats.” She points out that all reading experiences – including graphic novels – help to enhance skills such as comprehension, fluency and the ability to make connections and inferences.

  1. Momentum

Multi-book series naturally provide a sense of excitement when the reader finishes one book and eagerly moves on to the next. In her classroom, King-Mieske has noticed that graphic novels can serve as a springboard to future reading endeavours. “My hope is always that once you find something students enjoy reading and they start to feel more confident, you can encourage them to explore other books,” she explains. The Big Nate series by Lincoln Peirce assists with this transition by offering two distinct formats: comic-strip style and conventional novels.

  1. Creativity

The wacky, over-the-top situations portrayed in the Captain Underpants books have undeniable appeal to kids’ imaginations. They regularly inspire my younger son to start drawing his own comic-book scenes. It’s stick-person slapstick at its best, usually with people yelling “Look out!” while others crash into walls. As a bonus, though, he’s also absorbing the elements of narrative structure. He’s learning that a proper story has good guys and bad guys engaged in a conflict that should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The technical terms like “protagonist” and “antagonist” can come later – it’s still good exposure.

  1. Vocabulary

Although the Captain Underpants books do contain some challenging words like “tyrannical,” critics gasped at the intentional presence of spelling errors in the homemade comic strips that are part of the story. Because I’m a former high school English teacher, a copy editor, and someone who is generally obsessed with correct spelling and grammar, people have openly asked me if I am concerned about my kids reading these books.

It doesn’t bother me, for two reasons. First, these are not the only types of books they’re reading, so we’re not relying entirely on Dav Pilkey to teach them how to spell. Second, I know they see the errors for what they are. My older son is in grade 4 and recognizes that the erroneous spellings of “laffs,” “bildings” and “superherose” are funny because they demonstrate the amateur level of the kids’ comics. He reads them on his own and frequently dissolves into giggles. His younger brother is in grade 1 and has less experience with reading and spelling, so we tend to read Captain Underpants together. This allows me to explain words he may not know (like “cantankerous”) and point out the errors. It actually becomes a valuable exercise as he tries to come up with the right way to spell the word.

  1. Motivation

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney is another well-known book collection that has made the jump to the big screen. The books’ reader-friendly visuals include a lined-paper background, simple cartoon sketches, and a casual typeface. This style of book seemed tailor-made for “reluctant readers” who might feel intimidated by a full-fledged chapter book. While that may be true, the fact is that graphic novels can engage any reader because they’re highly entertaining and often flat-out hilarious. We’re instinctively drawn to things that make us laugh. When I read Captain Underpants with my kids, not even my degree in English Literature can neutralize the ridiculous power of bathroom humour. There are parental jokes thrown in too, like the mom in Diary of a Wimpy Kid having an overzealous compulsion to try every idea she sees in “Family Frolic” magazine.

To become better readers, kids need to read, both at school and at home. During the unstructured days of summer, when there is no school-based “home reading” program to adhere to, reading habits may start to slip or disappear completely. This is no reason to panic. However, if you’re looking for some light reading material for your kids this summer, try some graphic novels. Captain Underpants is not going to permanently soil your child’s impeccable reading record. In fact, he might inject some fun into your family’s reading routine. Tra-la-laaa!

Picture of Kristi York

Author: Kristi York

Kristi York is a freelance writer and mom of two sports-loving boys. She is a regular contributor to ParentsCanada magazine, Running Room magazine, and the ParticipACTION website.

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