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Author Dave Pilkey surprises students during local appearance


“I’d just like to thank you. You got my son reading.”

That’s the first thing Bennett Holley, principal of Kenilworth Middle School, said to children’s author Dav Pilkey last Friday, Sept. 29, when introduced just after lunch in the school’s large gymnasium.

“Wow! You’re welcome!” replied a pleased and beaming Pilkey, with an amiable bob of his head, before turning his attention back to the audio-visual equipment on which he was about to present a highly entertaining talk to more than a thousand students from ten Sonoma County and Marin County schools. It’s clear this was not the first time a grateful parent conveyed a similar story to the bestselling author and illustrator. Nor was it the first time he’d be addressing such a large group of students.

“I still get nervous,” he said, as the doors opened and the first classes began to file into the room. At the entrance, employees of Copperfield’s Books distributed free books and red superhero capes to each incoming student. Said Pilkey, “It’s always really exciting, because the kids are always so great. I’m naturally pretty introverted, but they give me a lot of energy.”

Clearly.

Since 1987, Pilkey has produced nearly 65 illustrated books for young readers. The best known of them are the “Captain Underpants” series, which currently includes 22 different cleverly illustrated titles and spin-offs, and the recent “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.”

Pilkey, who is in Sonoma County for a number of appearances in support of his latest book, “Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties,” has single-handedly created more young readers than almost any author this side of J.K. Rowling.

Though crafted in the form of comic books, Pikey’s stories are remarkably clever, disguising their use of advanced vocabulary and inspirational messages behind waves of silliness, ridiculous pictures, and situations designed to make the average kid snort milk through her nose while reading during lunch.

Pilkey’s commitment to inspiring kids is fueled by his own childhood memories of suffering through a number of learning disabilities. It’s a hardship he compensated for by drawing and writing outrageous books and stories. Rather than earning the support of his teachers, however, Pilkey says his initial literary and artistic efforts resulted in numerous trips to the Principal’s office, and more than a few early masterpieces torn to pieces before his eyes.

“My second-grade teacher was not a big fan of my comics,” Pilkey told the crowd. “But I have to thank her, because she is the person who gave me the idea for Captain Underpants. True story.”

That story has to do with the word “underpants,” which Pilkey discovered always got a laugh when uttered to other second-grade kids. From that discovery — enhanced by his teacher’s insistence that “Underpants are NOT funny!” the young Pilkey created his very first “Captain Underpants” book, hand drawing and stapling it for the amusement of his fellow students.

To a chorus of gasps from the assembled youngsters, Pilkey added that that first edition — no doubt worth a fortune if it still existed — was confiscated and destroyed by his teacher.

“She told me, ‘You can’t live your life drawing funny pictures and telling funny stories!’ ” Pilkey said with a grin. “Fortunately, my mom wouldn’t let me believe that. And guess what? I’ve lived my life doing nothing but drawing funny pictures and telling funny stories.”

The remainder of Pilkey’s talk included brief, funny descriptions of his struggles with dyslexia and ADHD — which he defined as “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Delightfulness” — and an encouragement to his fans to make imagination and play a routine part of their educations and intellectual development.

After leading a rousing game of questions and answers, handing out bags of goodies to five trivia-savvy students — Pilkey bid the group farewell and quietly left the gymnasium as Patty Norman, of Copperfield’s Books, took the microphone to announce that Pilkey was giving every student present a $20 gift certificate to the bookstore.

“He thought of it yesterday, when he was at the store signing books,” explained Norman. “He wanted to put $200 gift cards in each of the five goodie bags. Then he said, ‘You know, all kids need to be able to go to a bookstore.’”

According to Norman, offering some extra details a few days after the event, Pilkey ultimately wrote a personal check for more than $26,000, to cover the cost of the cards.

“Kids have been coming in all weekend with their cards,” she reported. “You could tell that for some of them, it was the first time they’d ever been inside a bookstore. That’s what he hoped would happen. Given everything he struggled with as a kid, he just really wants kids to never give up reading and writing and being creative.”

Added Norman, “I think his appearance last week will end up having a huge impact on some of these kids’ lives. It was so much more than just a talk by the guy who invented Captain Underpants.”

(Email David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)