Captain Underpants to the rescue

Much has been written about the reading gap between boys and girls, with multiple theories offered for why girls read more than boys.

Boys are more active and have a harder time sitting still. They have less empathy than girls and can't relate as well with fictional characters. Boys have smaller language centers in their brains and are attracted to visual imagery, not printed words.

Whether these theories are right or not, getting boys to read &

and to like, even love reading &

can be a challenge.

A study recently released by Renaissance Learning offers valuable information about what boys themselves like to read. The Wisconsin-based company makes reading comprehension software that allows kids to read books and then take quizzes to test their grasp of the material.

Renaissance Learning has records on the reading preferences of three million students from kindergarten through high school. It created top 20 lists for books chosen by boys and girls in all grade levels.

As early as second grade, when most kids are still reading picture books, clues emerge about what style of book entices boys.

Mike Thaler's humorous "The Gym Teacher from the Black Lagoon," "The Teacher from the Black Lagoon" and "The Principal from the Black Lagoon" occupy three slots in the top 20 list for second grade boys. None of Thaler's books appear on the girls' list.

The main character in this series imagines all types of sinister school staff, from a librarian who glues kids to their seats, to a teacher who eats a student.

In the end, of course, the teachers, librarians and other adults turn out to be nice.

Three of Thaler's books are on the top 20 list for third-grade boys. This is also the year when Captain Underpants makes his appearance. Dav Pilkey's caped crusader is actually Principal Krupp, who is hypnotized by two boys, George and Harold, and made to believe he is a superhero.

Pilkey's books provide a transition from picture books to chapter books. Each one is about 100 pages long, with multiple chapters, but there are still drawings on every page. Pilkey cleverly uses humor to keep kids turning the pages.

In "The Adventures of Captain Underpants," George and Harold pull a variety of pranks on their school mates.

"Don't worry," said George. "We covered our tracks really well. There's no way we'll get busted!" The next chapter is titled "Busted." Unbeknownst to George and Harold, Principal Krupp has videotape evidence of their crimes and uses it to blackmail them into washing his car, pulling up weeds and crabgrass in his lawn, cleaning his house's gutters, washing the windows, vacuuming his school office, shining his shoes, clipping his fingernails, ironing his tie, mowing his lawn, tending his garden and painting the front of his house. All on the first day of their punishment.

After six to eight weeks of hard work, George and Harold receive a hypno-ring they had ordered through the mail and use it to transform Principal Krupp into Captain Underpants.

This first book in the Captain Underpants series makes it onto the top 20 list for third-grade boys, along with "Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets." None of the books are on the girls' list.

fourth grade, Captain Underpants has stolen the show for boys, with eight spots on the list devoted to Pilkey's books. Again, the books are absent from the girls' list. Titles such as "Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets" are enough to make any parent feel queasy, but attract the eyes of boys like laser beams.

In addition to potty humor, the books have plenty of violence. As Pilkey cautioned in one book, "Warning: The following chapter contains graphic scenes of two boys beating the tar out of a couple of robots. If you have high blood pressure, or if you faint at the sight of motor oil, we strongly urge you to take better care of yourself and stop being such a baby."

Are these books all bad in an era when parents and teachers are trying so hard to show kids that violence is not the answer? Considering what's on television these days, it's still pretty mild.

One added bonus is that amid all the destruction, the books have advanced vocabulary words, such as "rampage," "inevitable disaster" and "demolished." Speaking from personal experience, the Captain Underpants books were the stepping stones that led my son from picture books to chapter books. We've gone through at least six in the series since discovering the first one at his school's library in March.

Does this mean my son will be reading about boogers and bloodthirsty bionic hamsters for the rest of his life?

According to the Renaissance Learning study, five Captain Underpants books are in the top 20 list for fifth-grade boys, but then the series disappears from the favorites category altogether in sixth grade. then, boys have turned to more advanced books such as J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series and Katherine Paterson's classic "Bridge to Terabithia." Maybe for some boys, it was their adventures with a "new, improved, extra-strength super hero" that helped them make that leap.

To read the Renaissance Learning study and view the top 20 lists for boys and girls in each grade, visit /whatkidsarereading/ReadingHabits.pdf'sid=ST2008050402168.

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