Captain Underpants' Dav Pilkey on how he learned to love reading

Published on: 13 July 2017

Dav Pilkey, author-illustrator of the popular Captain Underpants series, talks to us about how every child can learn to love books. After all, it happened to him as a boy - even while having ADHD and dyslexia.

For readers who don't know your story, can you describe your experience of having Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia at school?

I was diagnosed with dyslexia and "severe hyperactivity" (what they now call ADHD) when I was in grade 2. My teachers didn't quite know how to deal with me, so they used to send me out into the hallway a lot. I'd spend hours out there each day, but it ended up being a good thing. I had lots of time to make up stories and work on my drawings.

With everything you know now, what would you tell teachers about how to engage a child like you - instead of making him sit alone in the hallway?

Fortunately, I think teachers today are better equipped to deal with kids like me. If I had one wish, however, it would be that people stop using words like "ADHD", "dyslexic" and "reluctant reader". These labels can make kids feel discouraged and alone, and often the solution is that some kids just need a little more time: more time to run around and play, more time to choose their own books and practice reading for fun... And more time to focus on things like art and music.

What was your early experience of books? Did your family share books with you? What books did you like best as a child?

My parents decided not to focus on what I was reading. Instead, they made sure THAT I was reading. So they'd let me choose my own books (even comics, humorous magazines and books that were below my reading level), and they encouraged me to read for fun. This became a habit, and it's probably the reason why I'm still a reader today.

What inspired you to create Captain Underpants? Can you remember the day you made him?

My teacher in Grade 2 inspired me. She was talking in class one day, and she used the word 'underwear'. The entire room erupted in laughter, and I thought to myself, 'Wow, underwear makes people laugh. I should DO something with that.' I started drawing Captain Underpants that very day.

What would you say to children (and their parents) who perhaps have difficulties with reading? Are there any particular types of book (or other medium) you'd really recommend to reluctant readers?

I firmly believe that choice is the key. Letting kids choose their own books, and practice reading for FUN is life-changing. So many studies have been done in this field, and researchers have discovered that it really doesn't matter WHAT kids are reading. They can even read the same books over and over again if they want. It just has to be a habit.

Kids who read for fun, habitually, do better at school. Spelling, math, vocabulary, and communication skills all improve. Some studies even show that kids who make a habit of reading for fun become kinder and more empathetic. 

What's the best thing about creating funny books?

For me, the best thing is meeting my audience. They're very honest. They're not afraid to tell me if I'm sweaty, or that somebody else has more hair than I do. 

What are your favourite books for children now?

I have so many favourites. Just a few are Wonder by R J Palacio, El Deafo by Cece Bell, Marty Pants by Mark Parisi, Invisible Emmie by Terri Libenson, Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan, The Bird & Squirrel books by James Burks, Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson and A Poem for Peter by Andrea Davis Pinkney.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is released in UK cinemas on 24 July. The whole epic Captain Underpants book series is available wherever books are sold (published by Scholastic).

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