Why Do We Read? Or, Is Captain Underpants Worthy? Or, We Recommend, the Next Chapter

Once upon a time a parent wrote to us, and she said that her son had trouble getting interested in chapter books, and that she was hoping to find something to really engage him. We seem to have recommended The Secrets of Droon, and other people recommended things he loved (particularly that famous conquerer of little boy's and girl's hearts, Captain Underpants), and the boy loved many, many of the books, and we all lived happily ever after, the end.

Except it wasn't the end.

What happened was, the mother went in for her parent conference, and this happened:

When we told [the teacher], at conferences, how much he was enjoying his
chapter books, she said that she's trying to encourage all of them to
read picture books too, to emphasize "core concepts," by which I think
she meant things like story arc, character development, etc. She said
that there are some really great picture books that the kids can enjoy,
and without those "core concepts," they will be in trouble in higher
grades, and she added, sort of offhand, that "Captain Underpants won't
be winning any awards."

This leads me to two questions. First, I guess, do you have any
suggestions for picture books for kids who'd rather be reading Captain
Underpants? But secondly, and maybe more importantly, do you agree?

Well now, here's the thing. I am not a reading expert in the sense that I know or understand what will make children "better" readers (which term I'm uncomfortable with anyway; ones who get better grades? Happier? More omnivorous? Life-long? Able to write a better book report?), so on one level I feel that no doubt teachers will know something about how to make the kid…better in whatever way they mean.

And I want to say that I strongly feel that picture books are amazing. Some of them are great literature, just as some chapter books are great literature, and some poems, too. The medium is not the issue. One parent wrote in when we talked about reading logs to say that her child had to log according to a system in which each book got assigned a certain number of points, for instance Where the Wild Things Are got 2 points, and The Boxcar Children got 10 points or something. And it made me positively ill that they seemed to be measuring by length or something, instead of how good a book is.

That said, I think we can agree (or at least I can, having seen the rest of this first parent's e-mail) that Captain Underpants is speaking to this boy. This is, for the moment, love. And if it's not great literature, and it's not, as the teacher noted, winning any awards, who are we to step into that delicate personal relationship between a person and his or her chosen reading matter? I just, at heart, don't think it's right.

As for wonderful picture books, it depends on what is meant by picture books. I love beyond reason The Velveteen Rabbit, but it might not thrill a Captain Underpants fan. Robert Munsch wrote a lot of amazing picture books, and so did many others. But for this young man, I am going to choose one of my very favorites of all:


You know why? It's about a boy having a moment all to himself. No one else gets in there. It really kind of kills me.

What do you guys think? What should this guy read? And why?

16 thoughts on “Why Do We Read? Or, Is Captain Underpants Worthy? Or, We Recommend, the Next Chapter

  1. First of all, I love The Paperboy. LOVE. And I love that you chose it because, well, it is the very SAME author as Captain Underpants, yet it is a very different type of book. But, it still is THE SAME AUTHOR who happened to WIN AN AWARD for a book. So THERE.
    Can you tell that I am completely disgusted by this teacher? (I am a teacher.) I think the first and foremost hurdle you have with a reluctant reader is engagement. Once they fall in love with books then you’re home free. I love Captain Underpants. My kids love Captain Underpants. I would NEVER discourage a child from reading it. Especially if it is supposed to be for independent reading at home. Reading a lot makes you a better reader. If you are not giving kids books that they want to read, they won’t read a lot. And, by the way, there are many (many!) books that I have loved and have touched my heart or changed my mind or BOTH that have not “won any awards.”
    As for picture books, well. I love picture books. Chris Van Allsburg’s books seem to captivate kids, especially boys. But they captivate me and I am a girl, so there you go. I especially like Jamangi and The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, but I like all of his books. Pirates Don’t Change Diapers is good too, and kind of in line with Captain Underpants.
    My best advice when it comes to reading with your child is to follow their lead. They will let you know what they are ready to learn (or practice)based on their engagement. One last note, I think many things about Captain Underpants can be challenging to readers, so even if it “hasn’t won any awards” it is still very worth reading.


  2. My son’s favorite series is Pilkey’s earlier one: Ricky Ricotta and his Mighty Robot. It doesn’t have the potty humor of Captain Underpants (whether that’s a good thing or not, I leave to you) but it has a Giant Robot, which is awesome.


  3. I have to say that as a teacher, I think the other teacher is full of it. S/he is spouting a very trendy bit of rhetoric in literacy circles right now…the long term value of picture books.
    I don’t buy it. Never have and never will.
    Picture books are nice when you’re a new reader. They have some beautiful art. Some have great storylines and dialogue. They do, indeed, have a place in older (grades 3 and up) grades.
    But it shouldn’t be a pre-eminent one, the way trendy literacy programs (I’m looking right at you Fountas and Pinnell, in particular) want them to be. Because while they have merits, they also have a serious deficiency…they lack real complexity, character development, and so on. THOSE are the traits that should be emphasized once phonics (another forbidden topic these days) are mastered and children are ready to move into chapter books.
    Which is exactly what I’d say to the teacher.
    Don’t get me started on what I’ll say when they tell me child is attempting to read a book above her “level.”


  4. My heart says “yes” a million times over for Captain Underpants. Right now I am reading a truly excellent book about children and love of reading called “The Rights of the Reader” by Daniel Pennac (a French writer– I’m reading the translation by Sarah Adams). I picked it up in my favorite bookstore originally because it’s illustrated by Quentin Blake (!!), but I stayed for the words.
    There are ten rights, and number five is “the right to read anything”. From his chapter on this:
    “Generally, we encounter the bad novels first.
    And when it was my turn, I for one thought they were really good. I was lucky; no one teased me; no one rolled their eyes in despair; no one called me a fool. They just left a few good books lying around, resisting the urge to ban the others.
    A wise move.
    For a while, we read good and bad books side by side…And then, one day…without even realizing it, we want to keep company with good books. We seek out writers and writing styles. We don’t just want friends to play with anymore; we’re looking for life companions. The anecdote by itself is no longer enough. The time has come when we ask for something else from the novel, not just the instant and total gratification of the senses.”
    (The rest of the book is really just as great).
    This isn’t to say that there is anything bad about Captain Underpants at all, but the sentiment stands.
    I am really in love with the list of ten rights in this book, and I think anyone that reads this blog would appreciate the book in the same way.


  5. I don’t like this teacher’s advice much. I also believe in the power of picture books and am constantly dismayed at how many lovely ones, meant for older readers, will go unread because older kids think they are beyond them. That said, teachers should read and dissect and use picture books IN THEIR CLASSES if they want kids to understand things like story arc or character or whatever. No need to FORCE them on anyone. Just use them for a project or activity or assignment.
    Anyway. There are SO many. Someone already said Van Allsburg, which was my first thought. Some others:
    – Superhero School
    – picture books by Pilkey like Dogzilla and Kat Kong
    – some quirky William Steig or Bill Peet
    – Jon Agee, maybe Terrrific or The Retired Kid
    – Marla Frazee, A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever


  6. that’s a burned out lame teacher. I think Captain Underpants is dreadful with it’s lowest common denominator kind of potty humor, but I would recommend it to a reluctant reader who likes that kind of book. The graphics, the actual kinesthetic appeal to the book, all make it worthy of being read. If a child is reading, I saw it’s a good thing. Lay off the judging.


  7. That teacher’s definition of a “better” reader is someone whose test scores will reflect well upon herself and her school. (I’ll cut her a break, though, because she’s no doubt under a lot of pressure regarding said scores.)


  8. I have a similar issue, as two of my kids are great readers but have just been going through a very long phase where they basically only read comics. I’ve really gone back and forth on how/whether I should try to get them to read other things. NOT that there’s anything wrong with comics, I supply them with good comics (Tintin, Bone, Asterix, Captain Underpants, Foxtrot, Calvin + Hobbes) as well as some crap(Marvel stuff, Archie) and we have discovered a few new series that are kind of middling-good (‘Daniel Boom – Loud Boy’, and ‘Lunch Lady’) I don’t feel like I want to keep them from reading what they like.
    HOWEVER, not all text comes in speech bubbles. I would like my kids to encounter an actual paragraph every once in a while. And they are both way ahead of their classes in reading level, so the school stuff doesn’t really cut it. So I have been encouraging them to read a few other things, not really forcing, but definitely saying “Here, try this. If you don’t like it after a few pages, you can put it down” and have had some success with that. I decided it was like food. You don’t have to eat things you don’t like, but I do appreciate it if you taste them every once in a while, just to see if maybe your tastes have changed.
    To this parent, I’d say: If the teacher wants him to read picture books, she’ll provide them in class. If he loves Captain Underpants, then go out and get him Super Diaper Baby so he can complete his set (It’s totally the funniest one!) If months go by, and all he’s reading is Captain Underpants, then maybe you might want to encourage him to try some new things (non-fiction, picture books, other comics, chapter books) just so he doesn’t get stuck in a rut. But if he’s happy, and you’re happy, and it’s just the teacher who is on about picture books, then let her deal with it in class.


  9. I too think the teacher is off base. But to respond to the request:
    The True Story of the Three Little Pigs Jon Scieszka (sp?)
    Stinky Cheese Man (same author)
    Miss Nelson is Missing
    The Three Pigs by David Wiesner
    Zoom at Sea


  10. My son absolutely loves Captain Underpants books, and they are the first series of books that he has wanted to read completely independently. Who would want to discourage that? As far as picture books go, nothing too cutesy will fly these days, and he likes the challenge of reading “chapter books.” One favorite picture book is Chris Van Dusen’s If I Built a Car. Maybe a bit young for him now, but he still likes it.


  11. There are some great picture books out there, so here are some of my suggestions:
    John Burningham – John Patrick Norman McHennessy the Boy who was Always Late
    Andrew Clements – Double Trouble in Walla Walla
    Barbara Park – Psssst! It’s Me the Bogeyman
    Mac Barnett – Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem
    Mac Barnett – Guess Again!
    There is no story arc in this book, but it is very funny. It takes the little kid book with a rhyme describing something, turn the page to see the answer and then totaly twists it. See below:
    Their fleece ia warm and wooly white.
    And when you lie awake at night,
    Count them and you’ll fall asleep.
    A Guess? Why, yes! A flock of
    (turn the page)
    Abominable Snow Monsters.


  12. Not a big fan of that teacher’s comments.
    My son and I read The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman this week. I love the drawings, he loves the story, and it’s a fitting recommendation since it’s a tale about a group of seemingly no good students giving an unfair teacher the what-for.


  13. Anything by Allan Ahlberg, who writes amazing picture books and chapter books. Particularly “The Runaway Dinner” and “The Pencil” (picture) and “Woof” (chapter). My 7 year old son adores these, and he’s a huge Captain Underpants and Ricky Ricotta fan.


  14. All of these comments are fantabulous. You all make me much less nervous about my own kid starting first grade next fall. Nice to know you all, teachers & parents, are out there in the world.
    My probably unnecessary recommendation is James Marshall’s George & Martha books. Also, his Stupids books. (Of course, with those, you have to make sure the kids know not to actually call people The Stupids in real life. But, see–that’s a teachable moment right there!) Anyway, even reading it to the 3yo for the umpteenth time find George and Martha to be the best “flash fiction” around. (And you can tell the teacher you are prepping your kid for when the class covers Ionesco & Beckett. Hah!)


  15. the amazing bone – william steig (one of my all time favorites and)
    harvey potter’s balloon farm – written by jerdine nolan and awesome illustrations by mark buehner


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