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Essays
Living With Captain Underpants



Before I clear the library security gate Finn breaks free, swooping around one small, free-standing stack, zipping around another, a flap of blue sweatshirt trailing behind like a small bird's tail feathers.

I find him perched in front of a low shelf, rapidly flipping through books. I kneel beside him and scan spines.
After a minute, he rocks onto his heels and resolutely folds his hands in his lap.

"It's not here," he says.

"Book 9?"

He nods and we resume our search.

I offer him book after book, redundantly calling out titles. To each, he shakes his head.

"We already read that one!"

Finally, he throws up his hands. "Mom. It's. Not. here!"

And he's right. There are a dozen copies of Book 8 but not a single Book 9. We've checked every book twice, as well as the shelf above, in case of a reshelving mishap, which happens often in the kids' section. We leave the stacks to search the online catalogue, but the system lists not a single copy.

Together we approach the librarian, she of last resort. Tawny and bespectacled, she works behind a high counter, encircled by stacks of books and rolling carts. We wait obediently while she scans her system. She finds the author's website. She confirms: There is no book 9. There has never been a Book 9. There will never be a Book 9.

Finn stands beside me, unaware of the conversation's fatal turn. We double- and triple-check the screens, exhausting our options. I don't know how to tell him.

Book 8 promised Book 9. Right there on the endpaper we saw the title, the emblazoned caption "Coming Soon!" There was even a mock-up cover illustration. But this beatific vision was a mirage. We turn from the desk and I think: this is how it ends, in anti-climax, in the quicksand crumbling of disappointment. It ends prematurely, without warning. It ends unjustly, without absolution. It will end, absolutely, with a whimper.

In the middle of the library, surrounded by thousands of books, I consider only the one not written. There is no more new, no more next. My son's beloved character -- the one he has lived with for weeks, whose every episode has delighted and compelled, whose further adventures he has plotted for days -- has been robbed of resolution. Imagine if the wolf were left prowling on the roof of the brick house, if Sylvester's parents had never found the magic pebble, if Boo Radley had lurked forever in the shadows--

Obviously, this is a kind of death.

Understand: the Captain Underpants books are among the most ridiculous, disarming, compelling chapter books written for juvenile readers (in all senses of those words). They are crude and irreverent. They are exuberant and artful. Sure, Finn and I had read Stuart Little, and the full-length Winnie the Pooh, all those gorgeous Jane Yolen books, the charming Tomie de Paolos, even the oddly moving moral hijinx of William Steig. We had read Great Poetry and the requisite Mother Goose and nonfiction about rainforests and redwoods and the moon. And he loved those books. But set that tall pile next to Captain Underpants?

Captain Underpants was Finn's Alpha and his Omega. They were the first books to be gathered every library trip and the last to be placed on top of his bedside stack. They were the books he looked forward to all day, and the ones he lunged for the minute the crank of the emergency brake signaled his father's arrival home. Then, father and son would climb into the loft and lie belly down under a blue fleece blanket, the reading lamp pouring its halo of light around them. Then they would disappear into the outrageous adventures of two small boys who, with a snap of their fingers, could transform their school principal into a white brief-wearing superhero who takes revenge on villains via the dreaded super-wedgie. George and Harold play practical jokes, get in trouble, invent new characters like the talking toilets, the wicked wedgie woman, professor poopy pants. You get the idea. The books are fast-paced and short-chaptered and full of wacky illustrations and (yes, obviously) potty language and something my son found perfectly amazing: the flip-o-rama, a 2-page stop-motion animation that brings to vivid life the story's key moments like, say, when Harold and George punch a villain down a toilet with a plunger.

It's safe to say that in all of Finn's brief reading life, there had been nothing quite like Captain Underpants.

Understand: Finn is five. He has just learned to recite the alphabet without skipping LMNOP. He can recognize most of his letters by sight but he does not know -- nor much care about -- their sounds. In other words, he is not a reader. Not exactly.

But give him a story and he'll flock to you like a gull to chum. A new book in hand, he drops to the library floor, curled protectively over its pages, oblivious to the world. His head bends forward in concentration, and for minute upon minute, he and the book comprise a suspended animation. He will roost on a bench in near-perfect stillness, enraptured, his mind cresting beyond the pedestrian silence of the library. When it is time to go, he walks with his head still buried in his book to the scanner, where he will relinquish his volume just long enough to check out. At home, he pads happily into his room with his new cache and lies on his bed, chin in hands, or sits, chin in hands, at his project table, gazing and turning, turning and gazing.

It's hard to say exactly what he studies in these books. Certainly the illustrations. Certainly the pictorial sequence of events. Certainly he learns some things, about things, about the world, from books: "Mom, I know something..." he will say to me. Or "Did you know something?" And then he will interpret correctly a series of events, or a fine detail, or show me the especial artfulness of a wrap-around cover or a full-spread illustration. He has grasped humor, irony, even awe from books. He understands puns. Books have illustrated character and adventure, mystery and complication, the real and the impossible. They have shown him process and product, similarity and difference, sequence and plot. There is more to books for young readers than letter-learning, things more important than decoding phonics. There are things sensed and things dreamt, things that vault him away from heaven and earth and into the strange whirling of his imagination. Already these things bring him a new version of the world. And so I let him sit alone with his books for a very long time, and then he will come to sit beside me for an hour more, listening to stories. But, no one -- not his sister, nor a single one of his teachers, nor his grandparents, his father, nor I -- would describe him as a bookish boy. He simply loves books. And of this love, Captain Underpants receives the bounty.

In the end, I just tell him.

"There is no Book 9."

He looks up at me, his head skewed in confusion.

"I know Book 8 said there would be a Book 9," I explain, "but Dav Pilkey never wrote it. I don't know why."

His brow furrows and his little mouth falls open in puzzlement. He gives a barely perceptible shrug and turns away from me. His head hangs low, as if knocked off its perch. His shoulders droop. His head droops. His long bangs flap over his eyes. All the flight and fighting spirit of him is crushed. He brims with resolute, little boy sadness.

"I'm so sorry," I say quietly. He blinks once, refusing to meet my gaze. I take his hand, and as if compelled, we home our way back to the stacks. He stares at the shelf where the book should be. "Are you okay?" I ask. "Finn?" But he has already sunk to the floor. I sit cross-legged next to him. He pushes me away, then reconsidering, climbs into my lap. I whisper into the weight of his silence, "I'm so, so sorry."

He burrows against me, warm but sad, and in his surrender I know that something important has flown from him, and he has no idea how to get it back.

"I understand," I say, my throat clotted with his disappointment. "When you finish a really good book, a book that you love, and there isn't another one like it, it's like losing a little friend."

I wrap my arms around him. His body shudders, and only then does he begin to weep, softly, so as not to draw attention to himself. He nods, then gasps, and sighs again. What does it matter that the object of his affection is fiction? Swiftly, he swipes at his tears with the heel of his hand. He weeps, and tries not to weep, and I hold him and repeat my mantra. "I understand," I say, "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I understand."

Why do we read if not to imagine more fully empathy and understanding, courage and resignation, foolishness, cruelty and injustice, disaster, despair, and maybe, once in a while, a dull note of hope, the fullness of pleasure, a rectifying absurdity? We read for other lives. We read for our own lives. Finn nests in my arms on the floor of the library. He doesn't know these things, not exactly, but here he knows joy and its coin-flip of pain. Here, books are real and as vital as I am. With his palms he presses away the tears, and tries to be brave and stoic, but he is, after all, only five. Something in me has crashed, too. Unable to pull him from his despair, I feel helpless. I know his deep sorrow, the grief that, for him, is as real as any I've ever known. But I know, too, that there are other books to discover, new stories to adore, further heroes to claim as his own. He will scale his way out of this dark pit, one book at a time.

I hold him for a long time. Finally I say, "Listen, Finn. You have a choice. We can do two things." He looks at me obediently but without hope. "We can start reading the books all over again, from Number 1. Sometimes, when I finish a book, and I don't want it to end, I just read it again. It's a great thing, to read your favorite books over and over. Or," I continue, "we can find another book by the same writer. I do that, too. Here," I say, pulling a book from the shelf with urgency. It's another volume in a new series by the same author, and I point out, letter by letter, that the author's names match.

Now his spine straightens, his eyes spark. His tears evaporate and he breathes with ease. He plucks the book from my hand and flips through it. He recognizes a typeface, an illustration style and -- hallelujah! -- there it is: a flip-o-rama. We place the book in our basket and move on.

And so, on this day, there is no death, only the re-birth of character, its endless incarnations and iterations. Once again, there is possibility. First: Ricky Ricotta, then maybe Missile Mouse, and volume after slim volume of Geronimo Stilton.

Later, we climb into his loft and rest on the sea of his blue blanket, the book between us. It is another ridiculous, gratuitous book, but I don't care. It absorbs him completely, a rich and seamless part of his life. I tether my imagination to his, my great hope that this moment will be repeated for him over and over again, that he will continue to remember all those things he knows so certainly -- and maybe only with true certainty -- when he reads.



What a beautiful testament to the power of literature in our children's (and our) lives.
Enjoyed this. What a fine tribute to the enchantment a book can have, and to all that is pre-shrunk and cottony. We are big Capt. Underpants fans here, and as a parent I think the humor is more sophisticated than meets the eye, and the vocabulary rich as well. Go, Capt. Underpants, Tra la laaaa!
I can't believe there are no more Captain Underpants! Impossible! My boys, who are in college now, lived on Captain Underpants, for all the reasons you mention, and I had forgotten all about him until now. Suddenly, the Dumb Bunnies come back to me too and that warm and sweet-smelling bundle of boy after bath is right here with me. Thanks for a lovely memory! Ginger Moran
Thank you for a wonderful moment with your family. My son is 2 1/2. When he was about 1 he initiated me into the wonders and physical adeptness of breastfeeding and reading simultaneously. I hungrily await out time with Capt. Underpants.
"...give him a story and he'll flock to you like a gull to chum." Exactly. I have a 3-year-old grandson like that. It's such a gift to be able to experience, again, a child's love for a story. If only all kids had adults who would respond to that love and foster it, as you do!
What a beautiful testament to the power of literature in our children's (and our) lives.
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