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Hold On To Your Tighty Whities, Captain Underpants Is Back!

Let's face it. When you're a kid, sometimes adults can be a real drag. The new Captain Underpants book puts it this way: "Did you ever notice how grown-ups hate it when kids are having fun?"

Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants books are all about kids who get in trouble for having mischievous fun. With potty humor, wacky illustrations, and names like Tippy Tinkletrousers and Professor Poopypants, small wonder the books are hugely popular. Every book in the series has made it to USA Today's best-seller list. The folks at Scholastic are counting on the new one — Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers — to do just as well.

At the Robert E. Smith Library in New Orleans, 8-year-old Aidan Caliva says he loves the silliness of Captain Underpants. One of his favorites is Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy. In that one, protagonists George Beard and Harold Hutchins get busted for leaving ketchup packets under the toilet seat in a prank they call "Squishy."

Sundiata Haley, 7, thinks the title of his favorite Captain Underpants book is too long — Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds). But he's clearly tickled when he reads Captain Underpants' battle cry, "I am here to fight for truth, justice and all that is pre-shrunk and cottony."

Author Dav Pilkey even talks smack about grown-ups. In the new Captain Underpants book, he writes: "If you're like most kids you're probably reading this book because some adult wanted you to stop playing video games or watching TV." Pilkey says that when he writes for kids, "it's really an 'us and them' type of situation. It's like me and the kids versus the grown-ups."

Dav Pilkey began writing and creating comics when he was still in elementary school. This is his 10th Captain Underpants book.
/ Karyn Carpenter
Karyn Carpenter
Dav Pilkey began writing and creating comics when he was still in elementary school. This is his 10th Captain Underpants book.

Pilkey says there's a lot of him in the Captain Underpants series. He says he remembers what it was like to be a kid who got in trouble for his pranks. He also remembers what it was like to be a struggling reader. "I remember every kid in the class would have to stand up and read a chapter from our history book or something. And whenever it was my turn, everyone would just kind of groan, like 'Ugh, Pilkey's reading again.' And it just took me so long to get through it. I had all these really negative associations with reading. I just hated it," he says.

So he wanted to make a children's book that even kids like him would find irresistible. But some grown-ups, true to form, think it's inappropriate for the heroes of a children's book to be such troublemakers. George and Harold are big-time pranksters. They draw a comic strip in which they turn their mean principal into the superhero Captain Underpants who wears nothing but a red cape and underwear. This, and other bad-boy behavior, has landed Captain Underpants on the American Library Association's "Hit List," the annual top 10 list of most-complained about books. Pat Scales, chair of the ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee, says, "The No. 1 complaint is — this is kind of funny — nudity. I guess because the superhero has on jockey shorts. [Also] vulgar language, and they feel that kids are being taught not to obey authority."

In the books, the principal hates George and Harold's comic strip. Some parents have problems with it too, not for the content, but for all the misspellings. "Laugh" is spelled "laff." "Trouble" is spelled "trubbel." Rex Exnicios, 7, from New Orleans says that really bugs his mom. "She gets really mad ... She just says, 'That's misspelled,' and then says, 'This is how you actually spell it,' and then she spells it," he says.

Scales says Exnicios' mom is on the right track. Scales — who's a big fan of Captain Underpants — wants grown-ups to take it a step further and use George and Harold's mistakes as an opportunity to teach kids about literature. "What I would ask kids is, 'How does this represent the character of the two boys?' and 'What kind of students do you think they are?' And then you take it a step further," she says, "and have the kids write it out properly and say, 'How does this change the tone ... and how does this change the humor of the book?' "

Eventually, kids figure out how to spell the words correctly, says Scales. That's what happened to Titus Adkins from Brooklyn. He's a senior in high school. He says that when he was little, the Captain Underpants books were the only ones he liked. They were also the jumping-off point to more books. "I started reading Chronicles of Narnia when I was in second grade because of Captain Underpants," says Adkins. "It was because it was a book my mom told me to read. She said it was sort of like Captain Underpants. She kind of lied to me to get me to read it."

A trick that could've come straight out of Captain Underpants. Adkins says he got hooked on the Narnia books, too.

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.