Books·My Life in Books

Dav Pilkey: 10 books that shaped my life

The author of the Captain Underpants series and the brand-new Dog Man Unleashed shares 10 books that have made him a lifelong reader despite his dyslexia.
Dav Pilkey is an award winning author and illustrator, best known for his children's book series Captain Underpants. (Charlie Cho/CBC)

Dav Pilkey's mission in life is to get kids to read - a goal made even more admirable when you learn that the creator of the enormously successful Captain Underpants books and the just-released Dog Man Unleashed is dyslexic.

Dav shares with us 10 books that, from childhood to adulthood, have broken through the barrier of his dyslexia - and helped shape him into a kidlit rock star.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

"My mom and dad thought that Where the Wild Things Are would give me nightmares. There was a copy at church, and my mom was the organist. She would bring me there when she had to practice, and she would say 'Don't read that 'Wild Things' book, whatever you do.' And I would promise her I wouldn't, then run over and pick up the book. This was before I could read, but I would spend so much time on the pictures. I even tried to draw the monsters. There's a forbidden quality about it, even now - when I look at it, I get this wonderful sense that I'm doing something wrong."

George and Martha by James Marshall

"James Marshall's George and Martha series is just beautiful. The illustrations are laugh-out-loud funny. The emotion he can get out of two little dots for eyes - it's amazing. He really inspired me not only to be a good writer, but to be a good illustrator and to be as expressive as possible with as few lines as possible."

Round Trip by Ann Jonas

"When I first started creating children's books in college, I discovered Round Trip by Ann Jonas. It's full of black and white illustrations, and when you get to the end, you turn it upside down and you read it back to front. And the whole story changes. I'll never forget that book, because it had such a profound influence on me about what can happen in children's books. It shows me that books for kids can be real art, and be really inventive. That was a big, big book for me."

El Deafo by Cece Bell

"Cece Bell's El Deafo is a perfect book. It's a chapter book and a graphic novel at once, which I love because I have dyslexia and find large chunks of text difficult. El Deafo is about Cece's experience growing up as a deaf girl. She portrays herself and all the book's characters as rabbits, which makes her storytelling somehow even more sensitive. It's a page-turner of a story and there's so much warmth and humanity to her writing. When you read this book, you feel like you've lived a life, and that you could be best friends with her now."

The Peanuts Treasury by Charles Schulz

"As a kid, I went through a really intense period of reading The Peanuts Treasury by Charles Schulz, which encompasses a lot of the more well-known storylines of the strip from the sixties. Every night for a few years starting when I was about eight years old, I would pull it out from under the bed and read it until I fell asleep. Every night. When I reached the end, I would start back at the beginning. I often saw reading as something I had to do, but this is the first book where reading was a total delight. It made books come to life for me."

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

"Being dyslexic, I find that if I'm not engaged, I read the same sentence over and over and I cannot make any sense of it. It's so frustrating. That's why I veer so heavily toward graphic novels. But Stephen King is probably my favourite writer who does straight writing with no pictures. I've often thought that his books don't even need to be scary. The portraits he paints of his characters are so strong that they could stand alone. I was recently rereading Pet Sematary and the main character was having a beer and talking to some older guy who lived nearby. It was just this conversation sitting on the porch, and it was so engrossing to see these two lives unravelling. King creates characters who you would walk through anything with. They could just be stories of conversations, and I would still go along for the ride, they're that good."

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

"Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half is a fantastic book. It is just a scream. I loved that it would go from one thing to the next, but it still seemed like a complete and whole story. She would be talking about herself as a kid, then her dog - I don't know you could go from one random thing to the next like that, but she did it. In one bit, she's taking an online quiz to try to determine whether her dog has mental deficiencies and I'm just doubled over laughing. But I also love the part where she gets lost in the woods as a kid with her mom, and her mom is trying to make it seem like she didn't want the kids to worry, but they were getting more and more worried. It made me think of my own childhood, and it made me want to tell stories from my own childhood and be that good."

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

"Whenever I talk about Walden, people are like, Really? You've read an actual book? But I've always loved that book, and I've re-read it many times. There was a time that I had a very small pocket edition and I used to carry it around in my pocket every day. It inspires me to live and think simpler. It feels like it's always been a part of my life."

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

"We keep buying Dan Santat's The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. It's a beautiful picture book about an imaginary friend who hasn't been imagined yet, and he goes looking for someone to imagine him. It's fantastic and simple at the same time. Every year when a book comes out that blows me away, I say, 'Oh, that's going to win the Caldecott Medal.' And I'm always wrong. But when I saw Beekle I thought that ,and I was actually right for once - it won the award this year. Dan illustrates my Ricky Ricotta series, and he's one of the best people I know. He's such a nice person and a great father. It's nice when an artist you admire is also a human being you admire."

The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future by Dav Pilkey

"If someone had never heard of me or my books, or there was a time capsule and I could only put one of my books in it, it would be The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future. I remember Charlie Chaplin once said, If you want to know me, watch my films, and I feel that's true with this particular book of mine. The best part of me is in that book. I love kung fu and philosophy and dinosaurs and robots, and they're all in there. If there's any book that's a real reflection of me and who I try to be, that's the book."


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