It's a big event when Dav Pilkey, the creator of the children's book phenomenon Captain Underpants starts a new series, and that day has arrived. In Dog Man we meet a main character who is part man, part dog, and all funny. I think the Dog Man series will appeal to a whole new generation of young readers, and, like Captain Underpants, will show kids who don't think they like reading that it really is fun, after all.
Earlier this year I met Dav at a book show in Chicago and had a great time talking with him about books, travel, and the publishing world. Turns out he lives part of the time here in the Seattle area so we decided to meet up back home to talk about his new book, Dog Man. The Bookstore Cafe was the perfect venue for talking about books over food (don't books and snacks always go well together?) and we were joined by Dav's wife, Sayuri, who is great fun and also handles the nuts and bolts of this best-selling author's life so he can focus on what he does best---writing and illustrating.
What kept occurring to me as we talked was just how much Dav cares about the children he writes for. He understands what it's like to have difficulty reading and paying attention in class because that's how it was for him, too. Captain Underpants, and now Dog Man, are books that make reading fun. And that's the point. Below is a transcript from our conversation about Dog Man's backstory, a book that made a difference in his life, and favorite recent reads, among other things.
Seira Wilson: How would you describe Dog Man to someone with only a minute or two to do so--the classic "elevator pitch?"
Dav Pilkey: Dog Man is a story about a dog and a man who are combined so he has the benefits of dogs but also the challenges of dogs, so his job is to make the best of the moment and overcome the challenges. But that’s not a good elevator pitch! Playing to your advantages and overcoming challenges.
SW: Like Captain Underpants, you first created a version of the Dog Man character when you were a kid--what brought you back to him?
Dav Pilkey: When I wrote the first Captain Underpants book I was kind of writing about myself as a child. And so I wrote about George and Harold creating comics as kids and Dog Man was, I think, the very first comic character I made up. So I wrote that in the first book. First came Dog Man, then I added a few other characters and then finally came Captain Underpants, and that’s sort of how it happened in my life. I started with Dog Man, moved onto a few other things and then in second grade I hit it big [laughs], Captain Underpants was a big hit with my classmates. So I stuck with it…
SW: You’ve talked a lot about having difficulties with reading growing up--what was the first book you read that really made a difference for you?
Dav Pilkey: I always kind of come back to Where the Wild Things Are. Even though it’s a picture book, it was the first book that I really fell in love with. And it was such a great book because I wasn’t allowed to read it either, so there was something forbidden. My mom thought I was going to have bad dreams because of the monsters, but my church library had a copy of it so I was always sneaking it and hiding under the desk reading it. And that love, that connection with a book, it was the first time that had ever happened to me and I think it helped to inspire a lifelong love of reading.
SW: What are you reading now?
Dav Pilkey: My reading preferences are kind of all over the board—I read nonfiction, I read graphic novels…
SW: Any favorite graphic novels?
Dav Pilkey: I just finished reading Roller Girl for the second time.
SW: Oh, I love that one!
Dav Pilkey: It’s so good! My goodness! And a debut graphic novel too! Mind-blowing… And I really like CeCe Bell’s El Deafo, that’s one of the best things I think I’ve read in the last ten years. It’s just wonderful. So I guess if it’s done well I like the genre of autobiographical graphic novels.
SW: Do any of the stories in Dog Man come from the stories you wrote for him as a kid?
Dav Pilkey: No, Dog Man was a lot different when I was a kid. I think he was just a dog who flew around, I totally ripped him off from Wonder Dog. So as an adult, when I brought him back that’s when I brought in the elements of he’s part dog and part human and he’s a police officer and has this relationship with the chief, who he’s constantly trying to please and not doing a good job of it.
SW: One of the things I think is so wonderful about your books is that they really do appeal to everyone--adults, reluctant readers...they’re really fun.
Dav Pilkey: Having a sense of fun in books is a huge, huge deal, because a lot of times kids--even me when I got to third or fourth grade--don't associate reading with fun. It was like homework or some sort of assignment and I felt like, aww do I have to? You have to read these pages over the weekend. Why? What did I do? But I think if you can show a kid that reading can actually be fun, it can make you laugh, inspire imagination--that can make a huge difference, that can help a child who’s struggling with reading to really look at it differently.
SW: Do you have any favorite moments as an author?
Dav Pilkey: I just had one recently. And it’s funny because earlier we were talking about Harold coming out—he didn’t really come out in the book, he just goes to the future and here he is and he’s gay and it’s not a big deal, and we move on. But I remember I was doing a book signing and a ten or eleven year-old boy came up to me and said, “thank you for making Harold gay” and I said, “oh, you’re welcome,” and I said, “do you mind if I ask you why that was so important to you?” and he said, “because it looks like my family..” I got a little choked up there! It was a really beautiful moment, I could tell it meant a whole lot to him and that was really nice.
SW: That must be immensely satisfying, to have those moments with kids in particular because they are just so honest…
Dav Pilkey: Yeah, I do get a lot of that, not just from kids but also from parents. I hear this every time I go out on tour, “my child would not read until they found Captain Underpants" and now they’re reading Chaucer or something like that. But you know, now they’re 18 and they’ve moved on, or they’re going to graduate school now. A lot of years have passed since the first book came out, and these kids are growing up and finding success and a lot of parents and grandparents believe that Captain Underpants was a catalyst, at least for their children, by capturing their interest. And I never get tired of hearing that.