Dav Pilkey scored a huge hit with The Adventures of Captain Underpants and its sequels, of which there are more than 45 million copies in print. Published by Scholastic’s Blue Sky Press, that series stars mischievous fourth graders George Beard and Harold Hutchins, who turn their principal into an underwear-sporting superhero. George and Harold were credited as the authors of The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby, a Captain Underpants spinoff. Blue Sky will release these characters’ second graphic novel, The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future, announced in PW. This paper-over-board book rolls out with a first printing of one million copies. Pilkey shared with Bookshelf the story behind this book, as well as some insights into his creative process.
What led you to transition George and Harold from characters to authors?
A lot of kids had written to tell me that their favorite parts of the Captain Underpants books were the short comic books by George and Harold. To be honest, those are my favorite parts, too. I thought it might be fun to make an entire book by George and Harold, so I started a new series of graphic novels called Tree House Comix. It launched in 2002 with The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby, which was a huge success. The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future is the second book in this series. Of all the books I’ve ever made, these two are my favorites. I love the fun and challenge of “ghost writing” for George and Harold.
In what way is it a challenge?
Those two boys see things a little differently than I do. Often I’ll have to abandon an idea or a joke because I know that George and Harold wouldn’t have liked it or thought it was funny. But it’s a good thing, because it forces me to think of better ideas and better jokes.
Interestingly, I find it more challenging to draw in the simplified, childlike style of Harold than it is to draw in my own, more refined style. I constantly find myself having to erase and re-draw things because Harold can’t draw as well as I can. But even though Harold’s drawings are more primitive than mine, they still have to be very expressive and convey the proper emotions and actions. It’s far more difficult than it looks to draw in such a simple style, but I really love the challenge.
The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future moves from Caveland, Ohio, in 500,001 B.C. to the year 2222 A.D. This is quite a leap from the Captain Underpants universe. What inspired this tale?
I was inspired when my editor, Bonnie Verburg, told me about something she had witnessed while visiting her son’s kindergarten class several years ago. She was impressed by a little boy who made up a very tall tale—on the spot—during show-and-tell. This boy had brought a little toy ambulance to show his classmates, and somewhere during his presentation, it must have occurred to him that his toy wasn’t very impressive. So he tried to spice things up a bit by telling the class that his toy was actually a prehistoric ambulance that cavemen used to drive when they took sick dinosaurs to the hospital.
His story got wilder and crazier. I think the ambulance was unearthed by the boy’s dog, who was a famous archeologist, during an excavation in his backyard. The funny thing was that none of the other children were sure if he was telling the truth or not. After all, they were only five years old.
I liked the little boy’s tall tale so much, I drew a sketch of two cavemen paramedics and named them Ook and Gluk. I carried that sketch around with me for many years as I developed the plot and the characters. I still have it, actually.
Do characters usually come to you fully formed, or do they emerge gradually as you develop the plot of a story?
The characters usually develop as I work on the story. Ook and Gluk, for example, started out in my mind as “Prehistoric Paramedics.” But I thought about these characters over the course of several years, and during that time they “evolved” into “Kung-Fu Cavemen.”
When creating your books, do you reach back into your own childhood to recall what you thought was funny as a kid—or what you might have liked to read when you were young?
Actually both. It’s safe, and perhaps a little embarrassing, to say that most of the stuff I found funny as a kid, I still find pretty hilarious. But I wasn’t a big fan of reading when I was a kid. I was one of those kids who chose books based on how many pictures they had in them—more pictures equaled less words—and how many pages they contained. You’d never catch me reading a book with more than 200 pages. I think the books I make today are a direct reflection of what I longed for but almost never found in books as a kid.
Do you often hear that your books have inspired kids to read who otherwise haven’t been very interested in books? And is that rewarding?
Yes, but not as rewarding as hearing that my books inspired a kid to create his or her own story. I guess it’s because reading wasn’t a big deal to me as a kid. I was more interested in writing and drawing, so when I find out that I’ve inspired a kid to write and draw, I feel like I’m passing the torch in a way. My dream is that a bunch of kids who were inspired by my books will grow up to be great artists and writers and filmmakers. I’d love to have as big an impact on a kid’s life as Charles M. Schulz and Ernie Bushmiller and Arnold Lobel had on mine.
Did you draw cartoons when you were young?
Yes. I got in trouble constantly for making comic books at school and disrupting the classroom with them. One teacher, after angrily ripping up one of my comic books, told me I’d better start taking my studies more seriously because I couldn’t spend the rest of my life making silly books!
At what point did you decide to prove that teacher wrong?
I got inspired to create children’s books from a teacher I had at Kent State University. She walked up to my desk one day and noticed that my notebook was filled with cartoons instead of actual notes, so she asked to see me after class. To my amazement, I wasn’t in trouble. She told me I was a very good writer and encouraged me to consider making books for kids.
How was it that you came to be published by Scholastic?
I used to publish at Orchard Books, once a division of Franklin Watts, back in the early 1990s. I was pretty happy there until my editor rejected two books I had pitched to him, Kat Kong and Dogzilla. He said he didn’t think they were funny, which broke my heart. I decided to give up on the books, but I gave the cover illustration from my dummy of Dogzilla to a friend. About a year later, Bonnie Verburg, who at that time was an editor at Harcourt, saw the illustration hanging on a wall and fell in love with Dogzilla. She thought both books were hilarious, and agreed to publish them that very day.
In the mid 1990s, Bonnie started Blue Sky Press at Scholastic. I have worked with her exclusively there since 1997. Coincidentally, Orchard is now owned by Scholastic, so I guess I would have ended up there sooner or later.
Did the phenomenal success of the Captain Underpants books surprise you, or did you sense from the beginning that you had created something that kids would love?
I had a very strong feeling right from the start. I remember pitching the story to Bonnie one afternoon in the café at the Art Institute of Chicago. I showed her some “Flip-O-Ramas” I had made for a story called Furious George, which I never published, but can be found on [my Web site]. http://www.pilkey.com I told her, “Captain Underpants is going to be big. This is the book I’ll be remembered for.” I think Bonnie must have felt the same way, because she agreed to publish the book right then and there.
Kids obviously love the Flip-O-Rama feature of your stories. When did you first conceive of that?
I didn’t actually invent Flip-O-Rama. It’s just something my friends and I did in elementary school to crack each other up. I’m not sure who came up with the idea, but I know it wasn’t me.
Do you expect that George and Harold will write additional books beyond The Adventures of Ook and Gluk?
Oh yes. Those two kids have tons of stories to tell. There will be more Ook and Gluk books, more Super Diaper Baby books, and even a bunch of books about all-new characters. I’m looking forward to the day when there are more books by George Beard and Harold Hutchins than there are by Dav Pilkey.
What’s now on your drawing board—do you have other books or series in the works or in mind?
My next book, due next summer, has officially been declared “Top Secret.” Please check my Web site in May of 2011, when details will finally be declassified.
The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future by George Beard and Harold Hutchins. Scholastic/Blue Sky, $9.99 Aug. ISBN 978-0-545-17530-2