I chose The Adventures of Captain Underpants as a picture book for analysis. Essentially, it is about George and Harold, a couple of fourth-graders who play a prank on their oppressive principal with a hypnosis ring and inadvertently turn him into a superhero. It focuses on their problems when he escapes from their sight and embarks on a quest to do good.
I remember, as a child, being able to relate to this book. Its elementary school setting and gratuitous amounts of bathroom humor were things that me and my classmates were all too familiar with. The pictures are like children’s drawings, and “comic-book” sections are filled with misspellings and grammatical errors. Overall, the book felt like it was written and illustrated by a child—kids love this and can connect with it.
For a book with novel-like thickness, Captain Underpants has few words on each page and countless illustrations. Victor Strasburger states,”. . . as children mature, they are able to hold increasing amounts of information in working memory” (32). Given the word count on each page, one can assume that Captain Underpants is geared toward a young audience with a short attention span. In subject matter and organization, this book is modeled to fit an early elementary reading level.
From the Enlightenment era perspective, Captain Underpants confirms the views of some while opposing others. From John Locke’s view, the book goes against commonly accepted practices. While advocating a light-handed approach regarding punishment, Locke believed in some degree of “modesty and submission” on the part of the children. Being a book based on children’s outright rejection of adult authority, Locke wouldn’t approve of its blatant themes of rebellion.
On the other end of the Enlightenment is William Blake’s childlike view. Unlike Locke, Blake isn’t trying to change the nature of children. Rather, he views adulthood as warping an ideal mindset. “How can the bird that is born for joy / Sit in a cage and sing?” writes Blake in “The Schoolboy.” Instead of the isolation Locke advocates to protect children from undesirable “language, [and] untowardly tricks and vices,” Blake wants children like George and Harold not to be oppressed by institutions of education; rather, he wants to see their free-spirited attitudes cultivated.
A modern issue that came up in Captain Underpants is the issue of race. George, a main character, has dark-colored skin. The story successfully conveys a sense of racial equality to children of all ethnicities. Adherence to arbitrary propriety standards is another target. It boldly asks, “Why isn’t this humor appropriate?” Most importantly, the book looks at how serious mindsets take a toll on adults’ minds and bodies. Most adults in the book are fat, ugly, balding, and poorly dressed—perhaps a statement on how stress can hurt a person.
Captain Underpants relates to its audience as much as it acts as a warning to future generations about the problems with adulthood. Childhood and adulthood are explicitly juxtaposed with themes of freedom and oppression.
Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey
Victor Strasberger’s Children and Adolescents
John Locke’s “Some Thoughts Concerning Education”
William Blake’s “The Schoolboy”