Close reading of a picturebook/picture book

Dav Pilkey’s ‘Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers’ (hereafter referred to as Captain Underpants) constructs childhood as a time of innocence and expression.  Pilkey portrays childhood as a vessel of innocence where children have not been exposed to prejudices or pre-conceptions.  I argue that Captain Underpants celebrates and encourages the creativity and imagination associated with childhood.  Pilkey seeks to recapture the youthful energy and vitality that dissipates with adulthood.  I will be looking at Pilkey’s use of intertextuality, onomatopoeia and colour to examine how he constructs childhood, as an era of creative freedom and expression.

Captain Underpants’ construction of childhood is of one of not maturing too quickly.  Pilkey was both the class clown and a prankster.  In elementary school he “was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and severe hyperactivity.  By the start of first grade, Dav had successfully moved into the role of class clown […] Dav’s teacher didn’t care for his particular brand of humour.”

[1] Whilst growing up, Pilkey’s artistic and creative expression were always discouraged, as his teachers wanted him to follow the rules.  At school, Pilkey might have lost his creative expression if he had obeyed his teachers, yet through rebelling, he found success.  This demonstrates how children can still enjoy success without strictly adhering to an academic rule structure.  Whilst Nodleman would argue that this is evidence of how:

we work in literature […] to make children more like the ideal- to restore them to a “childhood” they appear to have lost sight of.  But did we really experience childhood as we claim to remember it? Or have we come to believe we did because we ourselves […] have also read books by and had interactions with adults who worked to impose their visions of childhood upon us?[2]

 

Whilst Nodleman argues this as a criticism of children’s literature, I assert that Pilkey uses it positively.  Even though, he enforces romanticised, unreliable memories of his own childhood onto his child audience, he still constructs a positive depiction of children.  Rather than encouraging them to mature too quickly, he urges them to retain their creative innocence.  Within the short comic book, at the text’s beginning, the pictures and text are intentionally simplistic.  The text is not in a computer font but crude handwriting that is littered with spelling mistakes and crossing-outs.  (See Figure 1)

Figure 1: Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Big Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2003)

Accompanying this text are equally crude and basic drawings that visually demonstrate and enhance the text.  In one panel, George and Harold explain they hypnotised their school principle, Mr Krupp, into thinking he was Captain Underpants.  (See Figure 1) This is demonstrated by Mr Krupp’s eyes being depicted as two spiralling lines.  Pilkey is constructing a childhood, where it is just as important to have fun and express yourself, as it is to follow the rules.  Whilst Pilkey is not advocating a complete departure from rule structures, he wants to encourage self-expression, as opposed to enforcing ideologies onto children.

This celebration of innocence and expression is continued through Pilkey’s use of intertextuality and onomatopoeia.  This intertextuality is seen near the book’s conclusion, where Harold worries that using Melvin’s time “machine two days in a row [could] bring about the end of the world,”[3] and George replies “that’s ridiculous […] it all sounds like a set-up for the sequel to a really lame children’s book.” (CU, p.172) (See Figure 2)

Figure 2: Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Big Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2003)

However, the following page depicts smoke clouds and lightning bolts exploding from the time-machine.  (See Figure 2) Pilkey’s inclusion of this drawing serves to parody adult fiction.  He is poking fun at how some adults take themselves too seriously and adhere too strictly to the rules.  Following the stylistic elements of comic-books, Pilkey also uses onomatopoeia.  Captain Underpants, who has unknowingly lost his powers, jumps out of a three storey window only to fall to the ground.  The following page shows Captain Underpants with stars bouncing off of his head, reminiscent of cartoon action.  (See Figure 3)

Figure 3: Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Big Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2003)

This combined use of onomatopoeia and intertextuality keeps Captain Underpants grounded within its own genre and relates to Pilkey’s idea of simplicity.  By using this intertextuality, Pilkey parodies how other writers over-intellectualise their work, thus alienating themselves from their child-readers.  Through his onomatopoeic language and by implicitly referencing cartoon action, Pilkey keeps his work identifiable and readable for his child audience.  In 2012, “Captain Underpants surprisingly topped the list of the most banned books in America […] beating out the much more controversial title “Fifty Shades of Grey.”[4] I assert this is why Captain Underpants has become so popular with children.  Due to how it has become so condemned by teachers and parents, children read it as an act of rebellion.

The trademark of the Captain Underpants series is the Flip-o-Ramas, which function as miniature flip-books.  Readers are instructed to hold the book down with one hand and to flip the page with the other.  This interactive and intertextual element engages child-readers by actively involving them within the book, thus transforming them from passive to active readers.  This relates to Pilkey’s construction of childhood as a time of free expression.  In one picture, Captain Underpants’ arms and legs are pointed in different directions, and in the next they alternate.  (See Figures 4 and 5)

Figure 4: Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Big Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2003)

Figure 5: Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Big Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2003)

If the pages are flipped fast enough, “the two pictures will start to look like one animated picture.” (CU, p. 138) He also suggests that the child should “try humming a stupid song and flipping to the beat.” (CU, p. 138) In encouraging the child-reader to actively engage with the story in a fun, creative way, Pilkey continues to construct childhood, as a vessel of timeless innocence and enjoyment.

A notable aspect of Captain Underpants is the monochrome drawings in which, Harold is white, whilst George is black, yet no mention of their ethnicity is made.  (See Figure 6)

Figure 6: Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Big Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2003)

This reflects the innocence of children and serves to demonstrate their accepting nature.  Furthermore, on multiple occasions, Pilkey illustrates George and Harold with similar facial expressions.  For example, when George and Harold are portrayed as scared, they are both drawn with wavy lines representing their pursed mouths and inward-facing arrows expressing their scrunched-up eyes.  (See Figure 7)

Figure 7:  Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Big Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2003)

By drawing George and Harold in similar ways, Pilkey implies that whilst people are all the same externally, it is their personalities and actions that make them special.  This relates to Pilkey’s construction of childhood as a vessel of innocence due to how open and receptive children can be to the unfamiliar.

Through having the majority of pages dominated by pictures, which are then supplemented by the text, Pilkey furthers his construction of the child, as a vessel of innocence.  Pages 56-57 are a double-page spread of the Robo-Boogers landing on a space-shuttle.  The only words, other than the shuttle’s name, are the onomatopoeic words: “splat,” “smak” and “spolt.” (CU, pp. 56-57) (See Figure 8)

Figure 8: Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Big Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2003)

All three sound effects enhance the child’s reading experience.  Through prioritising pictures over text, Pilkey is better engaging his child-reader through activating their imaginations.  Although the text is necessary to the pictures, it is only necessary in so far as it acts as an aid to assist the growth of children’s creativity.  By providing the onomatopoeic sound effects, this allows for a child’s creativity to focus in on something.

Pilkey demonstrates his construction of the child as a vessel of innocence and creativity that should be preserved.  The monochrome pictures demonstrate the accepting nature of children, whilst the Flip-o-Ramas enable a child’s creativity.  I argue that the key idea behind Captain Underpants is the importance of retaining childhood innocence and creativity.  To do so, childhood should be celebrated as a time of unbridled creativity and expression.  Pilkey wants children to be able to freely express themselves without having any ideology or agenda forced upon them.

Word count: 1650

Bibliography:

Engel, Pamela, ‘Why ‘Captain Underpants’ Is The Most Banned Book In America,’ (Business Insider, place of publication not given, 2013) http://www.businessinsider.com/why-captain-underpants-is-the-most-banned-book-in-america-2013-9?IR=T [last accessed 15 November 2015]

New Release Today, ‘Dav Pilkey Author Profile,’ (Place and date of publication not given) http://www.newreleasetoday.com/authordetail.php?aut_id=514 [last accessed  14 November 2015]

Nodleman, Perry, ‘The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature,’ Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 17 (1992) pp. 29-35

Pilkey, Dav, Captain Underpants and the Big Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2003)

[1] New Release Today, ‘Dav Pilkey Author Profile,’ (Place and date of publication not given) http://www.newreleasetoday.com/authordetail.php?aut_id=514 [last accessed 14 November 2015]

[2] Perry Nodleman, ‘The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature,’ Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 17 (1992) pp. 29-35 (33)

[3] Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and the Big Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2003) p. 172 All subsequent references are from this edition and will be given in parentheses after quotations in the text.

[4] Pamela Engel, ‘Why ‘Captain Underpants’ Is The Most Banned Book In America,’ (Business Insider, place of publication not given, 2013) http://www.businessinsider.com/why-captain-underpants-is-the-most-banned-book-in-america-2013-9?IR=T [last accessed 15 November 2015]
*Author’s Notes*

This essay was written for my Children’s Literature module, where we, unsurprisingly, looked at literature written for children.  One genre we explored were picture-books and for one of our assessments, we had to close-read a picture book of our choice.  I chose a Captain Underpants’ book, which has always been one of my favourite book series.  In retrospect this probably wasn’t the best choice, as I didn’t do brilliantly in this essay but oh well.

Advertisements