Summers ago, my then-rising second grader spent his first-grade year obsessed with Captain Underpants. Obsessed. He found the ol’ cap’n after first exploring the Super Diaper Baby book series at the school book fair. About two weeks later, I received “thank you” emails from classmates’ moms. The boys were finally reading. And reading. And, to be honest, at that time, it didn’t really matter that the graphic novels were written in phonetics and that every other word was “fart” or “poop.” The boys were reading!
But after four months of nothing but underpants, diapers, and cavemen (because they eventually moved on the slightest bit to Ook and Gluk), those “thank you” emails became “come on, Julie. You’re a teacher. Can’t you find anything else that your kid will read and share with our kids?!”
While rejoicing that my once-reluctant reader had realized a love of reading, the adoration for graphic novels about potties and accidents did make for a dry-evening read-aloud. (See what I did there?) I reminded myself that we all have our own interests that equate to favorite genres: I love a historical novel but have absolutely no interest in any of the Vampire books that so many friends enjoy. So what if my son was reading graphic novels about potties and accidents? He’s reading. Period. And he loved it.
Finally, though, it was time for him to learn that there’s a world beyond passing gas and dog poo. As toilet humor held his interest, I thought we’d start looking for new books that would manage to engage this humor.
Chapter books for early elementary kids
Finding the Weird But True series from National Geographic Kids was a blessing. The bright and colorful pages filled with all sorts of facts, like “some Ice Age people used human skulls as drinking cups” and “if you traveled at the speed of light, you could reach Pluto in just four hours,” continues to give my son thousands of useful facts to quote and surprise. Some are gross, some are scientifically interesting, and most are surprising. Each time he grabbed another volume, he’d be lost in facts for hours. Later, he enjoyed quoting and sharing with everyone, surprising teachers, grandparents, and neighbors for weeks. Weird but True: Collector’s Set (900 Outrageous Facts) is currently listed at $19.53. Individually, the books may cost less, as the first Weird but True book is only $3.99.
Because he loves chapter books with images, he quickly gravitated to the Captain Awesome series. The protagonist, Eugene, is an 8-year-old who loves comic books and superheroes, eventually creating his own superhero character who works with a new friend to save the day in each adventure. Book 1 in the series: Captain Awesome to the Rescue!
As we looked for more letters and words; less pictures, as a teacher, I’ve always recommended the Horrible Harry series to parents. These books, featuring second-grade student Harry, as told by his best friend, Doug, are all about being a “normal” kid in school, causing havoc in the classroom and on the playground. Harry’s antics, which are often meant to grab laughter and screams, often backfire, offering lessons in friendship and behavior. In reality, Harry’s not so horrible–he’s a great-spirited kid. Just don’t tell that to your 8-year-old! Start the series with Horrible Harry in Room 2B.
Another young elementary school character to look to for laughter and inspiration, the Ready Freddy series focuses on a boy (Freddy) who’s tackling everyday challenges such as being the last boy in his class to lose a tooth and learning to handle, and sometimes befriend, class bullies. One of my favorite parts of Ready Freddy books are the bonus facts and games at the end, which make for an opportunity to learn more about the topics in the book. Start the series with Ready, Freddy! #1: Tooth Trouble.
Upper Elementary books
Once a Captain Underpants fan, always a Captain Underpants fan, yes? That’s the story with my son, who is now in 5th grade. While he’s gravitated to fantasy books, like the Warriors series, he’s still pulled to realistic, silly fiction, often with graphics. In fact, he keeps a file folder in his room with his own cartooned stories. Throughout his years in elementary school, some of his favorite book series have included Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, and his latest love, Middle School, the Worst Years of My Life (and if you haven’t seen the movie with your kids, you are missing out! It’s a family favorite.)
A true hero, Captain Underpants author Dav Pilkey
It goes without saying that had my son not found and been inspired by Dav Pilkey’s books, he may never have realized an understanding that books are a worthwhile piece of entertainment. Pilkey, who was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia while a young child, continues to inspire children, parents, and teachers with his humor and love for children’s stories. While I’ve been told many times that parents want their children reading “real literature” rather than comic strips, made-up words, and potty talk, it’s important to remember that we all read to our interests, and we look to heroes like Pilkey to teach our children that we can all succeed and follow our dreams.