Over the course of a wildly creative career, Dav Pilkey has written and drawn more than 60 books that have thrilled millions of children with goofy, gross-out humor and genuine empathy. He has a distinct talent for connecting with his readers and their parents. Led by Pilkey, Scholastic’s Graphix list has helped to transform the graphic novel format into one of the fastest growing categories in trade book publishing. And with sales of his Dog Man series skyrocketing in 2019, Pilkey is doing more to excite kids about reading than any author since J.K. Rowling, making him PW’s Person of the Year.
Pilkey’s Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers, the ninth book in his popular children’s novel series, published in 2012, features a comic strip made by the book’s incorrigible pranksters George and Harold, the stars of the series. This comic-within-a-novel marks the first appearance of Dog Man, Pilkey’s lovable crime-fighting superhero, who is surgically constructed from the body of a cop and the head of his police dog companion after they were both injured in a typically Pilkey-style zany accident.
Four years after the character’s first appearance, Pilkey published Dog Man, his first full-on graphic novel (written and illustrated, ostensibly, by George and Harold once again). The response from Pilkey’s already sizeable army of fans has been overwhelming, allowing him to follow up the 14-title Captain Underpants series—which is 20 years old and has more than 90 million copies in print—with another megaselling graphic novel series.
This month Graphix released Fetch-22, the eighth and newest title in Pilkey’s series, with a first printing of five million copies. In its first week, Fetch-22 sold more than 312,000 copies, according to NPD BookScan. And in September 2020, Graphix will publish the next installment: Grime and Punishment.
Since Dog Man’s debut in 2016, more than 26 million copies of the first seven books in the series have been printed, according to Scholastic. In 2019 alone, Graphix says it’s printed more than seven million Dog Man books (not including Fetch-22) for the U.S. market. For Whom the Ball Rolls, released in August 2019, has sold nearly 40% more copies than its predecessor, Lord of the Fleas, which was released in August 2018, according to the publisher.
While Pilkey’s Dog Man and Captain Underpants books are flying off the shelves, his fans are flocking to his public appearances. A Pilkey book tour is essentially a rock concert for his throngs of young fans. David Saylor, creative director of Graphix, says of a recent sold-out Pilkey appearance at the Cartoon Crossroads Columbus comics festival in Ohio, “I was blown away by the event. The unbridled joy of the crowd and the way he connects with kids... I’ve never seen anything like it. Afterward, he met with every kid that wanted to meet him. It took hours and they waited patiently and got to talk with him.”
PW recently caught up with Pilkey—who was traveling in a remote part of Japan after concluding his latest Dog Man tour, which took him to China, India, and Singapore—via email. He acknowledges the energy and enthusiasm at his events and book tours, and praises all the organizers who “painstakingly put together the events,” joking that “the food was delicious!” But, he adds, “more importantly, the one thing I noticed is that we all share the same love for books everywhere we visited. I am humbled and grateful to the incredible booksellers, educators, librarians, and publishers everywhere in the world who dedicate their lives to literacy.”
Pilkey’s switch from prose novels to full graphic novels has given a sizeable boost to the graphic novel category. He “has been a huge comics fan his whole life,” Saylor notes. “He was happy that Scholastic had a graphic novel imprint that he could be a part of, and as a result he’s raised the profile of graphic novels across the nation and across the world. Just look at the artistry that goes into the books. Comics and humor are often considered easy to do. Dav can make you laugh with just his drawing. He’s had a huge impact on comics, spurring a universal love of the comics medium that we haven’t seen in years.”
Pilkey says, “Research shows that the graphic novel format helps kids develop an analytical eye for depth and complexity to the reading process. There are many different ways of learning, and the U.S. is finally coming around to seeing the importance of visual learning for all types of readers. I would not be a reader today if it weren’t for comics. I would not have discovered great writers like Henry David Thoreau if I had not learned to love to read. And that love started with reading comics by Charles Schulz. I think the comic writers and illustrators enjoying success today, myself included, owe a huge debt of gratitude to Lynda Barry, Art Spiegelman, Marjane Sartrapi, Jeff Smith, and many others who were making comics for kids and young adults way before any of us came along. They set the bar high.”
Pilkey’s childhood history is well known: like his creations George and Harold, he was a disruptive prankster as a kid, exiled to the hallways by his teachers in an effort to keep his exuberance (and comics drawing) under control. He also struggled with dyslexia and ADHD, which he credits with driving his storytelling.
“I am certain my ADHD and dyslexia have helped with my storytelling,” Pilkey says. “Dyslexia is a pattern of thinking and learning that isn’t outgrown, and ADHD helps me to hyperfocus. Both are different ways of processing information. I created a character in Dog Man called 80-HD to show kids that ADHD, with determination and practice, can actually be a superpower.”
So comics, Pilkey is happy to point out, have always been a part of his storytelling toolbox. He says he created the Dog Man character when he was in the second grade. Shortly after the comic appeared in Captain Underpants, he recalls, “I started receiving comics and drawings from kids about Dog Man, and it inspired me to write more stories about this character. I am overwhelmingly grateful to the reception Dog Man has received from readers around the world. It makes me want to work harder and continue to improve with each new book.”
Ken Geist, Pilkey’s editor and v-p and publisher of Scholastic’s trade division, credits the author’s appeal to “universal themes of humanity, compassion, silliness, and humor,” adding, “He’s able to convey everyday life though all of his crazy characters.”
Pilkey says, “One of the gratifying things is to hear about families reading my books together. I feel very grateful and privileged to have a job I love. I hope I can continue to write and illustrate books for kids and be remembered as someone who continued to create.”
Notables of the Year
In addition to naming Dav Pilkey as our Person of the Year, PW selected six industry members who had notable achievements in 2019—and our readers picked seven more.