“Captain Underpants” creator Dav Pilkey exposed the backstory to his most famous creation, allowed a brief look at some of his struggles growing up and gave children a crack at winning some original art at Mount Airy Middle School on Thursday night.
Pilkey was invited as part of the Sykesville book store A Likely Story’s speaker series, bringing a variety of authors in for presentations and signings.
The event with Pilkey sold out more than a week before the event, with the middle school bursting with fans of the author/illustrator behind “Captain Underpants,” “Dog Man,” “Kat Kong” and others.
His speech began with him narrating a short mixed-media video combining clay figurines, drawings and live-action elements. The short told the story behind the origin of Dog Man and Captain Underpants, both formed while Pilkey was in the second grade. He said the origin for the Captain could be traced back to a single moment — when his teacher said “underwear” in front of the class and everyone erupted in laughter.
He said he realized then that underwear had magic, comedic potential and later that day, Captain Underpants was formed.
A major component of the talk covered Pilkey’s struggles while growing up. He said it’s very important for him to let children know that they aren’t alone with the issues they face.
“I had ADHD before they had a term for it. They called it extreme hyperactivity,” Pilkey said. “I then found out I had dyslexia. There were so many labels that I felt very alone as a kid. Sometimes when you say ADHD, you look out into the audience and some kid will gasp. Or you say dyslexia and they say, ‘My brother has that.’ I wish someone had done that for me as a kid.”
Pilkey said the main thing he hopes children take away from his books is a love of reading, and a realization that it can be a joy. When he was young, he said, teachers often discouraged him from reading Mad magazine or “Peanuts,” but his mother taught him that it was more important that he reads rather than what he reads.
He said he was a huge fan of newspaper comics, particularly Ernie Bushmiller’s “Nancy,” and he learned to draw by copying the “Peanuts” characters out of each day’s newspaper.
Over the 20 years of the series, “Captain Underpants” has frequently found itself on banned book lists, with a sense of humor that Pilkey admits is immature. He said it doesn’t bother him too much to be an author on the most frequently banned book list because he shares space with his literary heroes like Harper Lee, Maya Angelou and Mark Twain.
“I think it’s important to use your brain and to think, and I think it’s OK to question authority,” Pilkey said. “Not every authority figure has a child’s best interest at heart, and part of being smart is asking questions. Some consider that rebellious — I think it’s just normal.”
Pilkey said it’s important to him that the sense of humor in his books is always positive and joyous, and never cruel or mean. He said one of the themes of his work is a sense of optimism and positivity.
“If there’s a major theme, it’s really just that creativity and imagination can be superpowers,” Pilkey said. “You don’t have to put your fist through a brick wall. These things you create can be your powers.”