Discover More About the Captain Underpants and Dog Man Creator’s Journey as a Writer and Illustrator
by Alexie Basil
This week, we loved seeing some of Dav Pilkey’s earlier art and writing in The Paperboy, a Caldecott Honor–winning picture book created before Dav’s blockbuster kid-favorite Captain Underpants and Dog Man series. We were inspired to dig into the making of The Paperboy, Dav’s journey as a writer, and what he considers to be his storytelling “superpowers.”
We found an incredible interview series with the book lovers at Reading Rockets and pulled together some of our favorite takeaways. Read them below with your class to discover more about the versatile artist behind some of today’s most popular kids’ books!
1. The Paperboy was inspired by Dav’s experience as a paper carrier.
When Dav was 12 years old, he was a paper carrier in Ohio. Many of his personal experiences as a paperboy are reflected in the paintings, mood, and atmosphere of the award-winning picture book.
In an interview with Reading Rockets, Dav shares that The Paperboy was “sort of a meditation or almost a reflection on being a child and being very independent and having a job at the age of 12, and riding your bike through the neighborhood when it’s all quiet. It was a nice vision to explore.” Today, according to a fascinating write-up on the history of paperboys by OnMilwaukee, most paper carriers must be 18 years old and own a car. But we’re certainly glad that Dav made it in under the wire!
“The book is based on my own experience as a paperboy. I loved the feeling of independence that came when I rode my bike around our neighborhood on chilly weekend mornings while the rest of the world was asleep.” —Dav Pilkey
2. Dav Pilkey’s first name is actually spelled “Dave”…but the more unique spelling caught on.
Before Dav was a children’s book writer and illustrator, he had a job as a waiter at Pizza Hut, and his employers made their name tags with an old-school label maker.
“Well,” Dav said, “the letter E was broken on it. So they printed out D-A-V and then they got to the E, and it was like, ca-chunk. My name tag said D-A-V and it’s just stuck.”
Today, the man previously known as David Murray Pilkey Jr. is officially known as Dav Pilkey in all of his published works.
3. Dav has dyslexia and ADHD, which made school difficult at times.…
Growing up, Dav always acted like the class clown—he was always misbehaving and making his classmates laugh. But beneath that, he was struggling with “extreme hyperactivity,” which we call today ADHD. Additionally, he was self-conscious about his dyslexia, which made reading exceptionally difficult.
“I felt very alone in a lot of ways,” Dav confessed. “The experience…was very isolating. In fact, literally isolating sometimes because my teacher would just, you know, point to the classroom door and say, ‘Mr. Pilkey, out.’”
4. But today, Dav believes his ADHD and dyslexia give him a useful perspective that enhances his writing.
As an adult, Dav speaks often about how he now considers his dyslexia and ADHD his “superpowers.” “[My ADHD] helped me to write stories that were not boring, and my dyslexia helped me too. It helped me to choose my words very, very carefully,” Dav said.
And what if Dav could go back and tell his younger self anything? He responded, “I would have said don’t worry about it. Everything is going to work out okay. Just stay true to yourself and try to focus on the positive and listen to your mother.”
“I think one of the reasons why Captain Underpants has resonated with so many children is because of the two boys that star in the books, George and Harold. They’re always using their imagination.…That’s kind of an attainable superpower that we can all have.” —Dav Pilkey, in an interview with Reading Rockets
5. Captain Underpants was a story Dav created as a child—and then young readers inspired him to share it!
Growing up, Dav Pilkey absolutely loved Charles M. Schulz—the creator of the Peanuts cartoons with Charlie Brown and Snoopy. As a kid, he would read them over and over and try to redraw the characters himself.
When Dav was in second grade, his teacher told a story and used the word “underwear”—and he and all of his classmates started to laugh! And so he got out a piece of paper and tried to create a character of his own, much like Charles M. Schulz—and Captain Underpants was born.
“I’m not sure why we all thought underwear was so funny. But [my teacher] did not think it was funny at all. She was very upset and she said, ‘Hey, boys and girls, underwear is not funny.’ And so we all laughed even harder of course. And I’ll never forget that moment. Everyone around us was laughing their heads off because of underwear, and I thought wow, underwear’s very powerful; I should do something with that.” —Dav Pilkey, in an interview with Reading Rockets
When Dav Pilkey was a kid, he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. He was so disruptive in class that his teachers made him sit out in the hallway every day. Luckily, Dav loved to draw and make up stories, so he spent his time in the hallway creating his own original comic books—the very first adventures of Dog Man and Captain Underpants.
Since then, Dav has written and illustrated a number of bestselling and award-winning children’s books, including the Dragon series, Cat Kid Comic Club, The Hallo-Wiener, and the Caldecott Honor book The Paperboy. His Captain Underpants series and Dog Man graphic novels have sold millions of copies worldwide and have been translated into many languages.
Dav lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife, but his writing is inspired by children and adults around the world. His stories explore universally positive themes that celebrate the triumph of the good-hearted.
Photo Credit: Scholastic