Monday, August 19, 2019

Captain Underpants and Dog Man to the Rescue of Struggling Readers

I recently started reading the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey with my students with dyslexia. Even the girls love this unlikely crime-fighting hero who is part cop and part dog. What makes these books even more meaningful is the fact that Dav has dyslexia and ADHD. He has several YouTube videos where he speaks very frankly about his experiences as a struggling reader. Check out the video on Reading Rockets. Pilkey was often sent out into the hall for being disruptive in class and would draw cartoons that he later shared with his peers. He was in second grade when he first came up with the ideas for Dog Man and Captain Underpants.

Feeling nostalgic, I looked through my son's old treasures and found the Captain Underpants books I bought for him seventeen years ago. He wasn't much of a reader at the time. I still remember him jumping up and down on the bed each night as I read to him and his sister. I wasn't sure if anything was soaking in. One day he came home from the school library with a Captain Underpants. When I saw the pure delight these stories of underwear and evil cafeteria ladies inspired, I went out and bought more. Those books are what turned my son into a reader.

My first young adult novel, Comfort, came out around that time. It tackled tough issues like alcoholism and family dysfunction. I remember wanting to write "important" children's literature and I thought a lot about what that meant. What I learned from my son's experience with Captain Underpants is this:

Important children's literature is the stuff kids choose to read when no one is making them read it.

With that definition, I'd have to say that Dav Pilkey's books rank right up there with Shakespeare. Interestingly, the same son who couldn't sit still for a bedtime story later took an entire class on Shakespeare in high school. In college, he gravitated to books on philosophy that I didn't even understand. I personally believe Captain Underpants is partially responsible for these successes.

Dav Pilkey recently talked to UNDERSTOOD.ORG about how he believes every kid has some kind of superpower, even if it is just imagination. He considers his dyslexia and ADHD to be his superpowers because they helped him to be very cautious about the words he chooses for each of his books and to "not be boring." See the post HERE and check out the other helpful resources at UNDERSTOOD.ORG for kids and parents. Pilkey created a free coloring sheet that is downloadable on that site.

Kids with learning disabilities and other challenges often feel alone. It helps for them to have role models to look up to who have overcome significant learning challenges. We have to be cautious, though, and not make kids feel that on top of all their other challenges, we have huge expectations for them to become Olympic athletes, famous illustrators, or billionaire entrepreneurs (Several of the entrepreneurs on Shark Tank have mentioned that they have dyslexia). That's why I really like what Pilkey says about imagination itself being a superpower. I also love that his Captain Underpants characters, George and Harold, are such unlikely heroes with the primary mission of defending, "truth, justice and all that is pre-shrunk and cottony." Their main gift is their imagination, and that is a superpower we must foster in all children.

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