He may not have worn his character’s signature red cape – or visible underwear – but for the more than 500 fans who flocked to the Vernon Area Public Library in Lincolnshire, Ill., on September 10 to meet Dav Pilkey, the author was every inch the superhero.
The library was Pilkey’s seventh stop on a 23-city national tour to promote Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers, the first new book in the series in six years. The author – who hadn’t toured in nearly a decade – chatted with each child individually over the course of a signing that began at 6 p.m. and didn’t wrap up until 9:40. That may sound overwhelming, but the author prefers one-on-one visits to giving speeches. “I do get a little nervous and shy about that,” he explained of his attitude toward addressing the public en masse. So he skips the podium and just chats with kids.
In order to nab coveted face time with Pilkey, attendees pre-ordered a copy of the book online from Lake Forest Book Store, which had partnered with the library for the event. Upon making their purchase, fans chose a “showing” – 6 p.m, 6:45 p.m., or 7:30 p.m – at which time they’d meet the author. The bookstore pre-sold 170 books and brought along 30 extras to the library; each book acted as a “ticket” for a family.
Fans began arriving at the library about a half hour before the first signing time. They cooled their heels in a large waiting room where Captain Underpants book trailers and trivia videos played. Kids were encouraged to draw pictures of their favorite characters to be used in an “Incredible Scrapbook of Awesomeness” for the guest of honor. Eight-year-old Josh Kaplan, who accompanied PW’s reporter to the event along with his mom, Jolie, chose a scene with Rip Van Tinkle from Super Diaper Baby 2, and said he found the video “boring.” (The adults in the room, who seemed to feel otherwise, watched the film loop. Like Josh, the other kids drew.)
In small groups, children and their parents moved into the signing room, where Pilkey spent the entire night sitting behind a table, saying hello to each fan individually and personalizing their books. “It inspires me,” he told PW. “It really does recharge my batteries.”
And clearly, his admirers feel the same way. Many fans’ parents told Pilkey that Captain Underpants had turned their reluctant-reader boys into bookworms. One mom said of her son, “He wouldn’t read at all until your books.” Pilkey asked the boy, “And you like to read now?” The mom answered for him: “Just your books.”
Josh, who owns all of Pilkey’s books, and has even read parts of them to friends on sleepovers, picked up his copy of Tippy Tinkletrousers in the signing room – and began reading it while he waited in line to meet Pilkey. “He spelled ‘trouble’ wrong!” he said of one of the book’s purposeful misspellings.
Josh’s meeting, when it finally happened, was brief – just long enough for Pilkey to sign one book for Josh, and another for a pair of his friends. Though Josh had prepared some questions – if the books were based on him when he was a kid, and which of his books was his favorite, and which was hardest to write – he didn’t ask them, because he knew lots of kids were in line behind him and he didn’t want to be impolite. The big shocker was Pilkey himself: Josh had thought Pilkey might look silly, like the photo on the bulletin board in the library that showed the author and his dog wearing glasses with big noses and moustaches. But the author looked downright normal in his plaid button-down and jeans.
After meeting Pilkey, Josh, like other fans, selected a bookmark and a tattoo from a basket held by a woman who, unbeknownst to almost everyone, was Pilkey’s wife, Sayuri. Then Josh, like most of the other kids, stopped by a table to follow detailed instructions for “how to draw Captain Underpants” and “how to draw Petey” (the conniving cat in Super Diaper Baby 2: The Invasion of the Potty Snatchers). Josh was enamored with the “world’s largest underpants” that were on display on the bulletin board by the signing room. (He only half-jokingly asked his mom whether he could take out the pins and try them on, but, not surprisingly, she said no.) Catherine Savage, who handles marketing and graphic design for the library, had found them online by Googling that phrase, and bought them for $24.95.
The bulletin board also showcased a chart that let kids translate their regular names into Captain Underpants-style monikers. Josh’s new name? Poopsie Potty Chunks. (He was pleased with “poopsie” and “potty” but not with “chunks”. “It should be ‘brain’ or ‘tushie,’ ” he said).
To enhance Pilkey’s numerous live appearances, Scholastic shipped more than 200,000 tattoos, 160,000 flip-o-rama books, more than 1,600 activity kits, and more than 1,000 floor displays to venues around the country. All that marketing muscle makes sense: when the last Captain Underpants title came out six years ago, many of today’s potential fans hadn’t quite graduated to briefs themselves. “It was really important for us to introduce Dav to new teachers, new librarians, new kids who have not met him yet,” says Scholastic executive marketing director Rachel Coun, who has worked on the series since its 1997 launch. “The best way to market a book is the book itself, and the author.” Josh agrees – giant underpants and temporary tattoos notwithstanding, he was emphatic about his favorite part of the evening: “Meeting him!”
Will fans need to wait another nine years for a live appearance? “Oh, no!” Pilkey told PW. Scholastic has already scheduled more tour stops for the spring, after the January 15 release of a 10th title in the series, Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers. Specific cities have not yet been announced, but just in case: Josh, mark your calendar.