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I See London, I See France

Is brevity the soul of wit, or just briefs?  I should have asked my 8th grade English teacher Mr. King, the seat of whose pants ripped wide open as he sprinted toward first base during our annual kids-versus-teachers softball game.

Like all great teachers, he was a master at problem-solving on the run: rather than hold up at first and face down scores of us 8th graders yucking it up at his expense, he never broke stride after he hit the bag, but made a beeline straight for the teacher’s parking lot, jumped in his car, and drove off.

Back then we didn’t have smart phones, DVR, or books about vegetables wearing underpants. How things have changed. Here at LPL we have not one, but two of the latter. For all those who wonder if broccoli wears boxers or tighty whities, Jared Chapman’s aptly titled Vegetables in Underwear answers the question, while Todd Doodler’s ante-upping Veggies with Wedgies received a review from Kirkus so scathingly lukewarm, that staid publication was moved not only to refer to “butt cheeks” for the first and only time I’ve seen in my many years of reading it, but, even more surprising, was distracted to vedgwedgthe point of dangling a preposition: “The veggies aren’t rooted in the ground; they have no hands, legs or butt cheeks to speak of; and they don’t have clothes to wear underwear under.”

These flaws aside, Doodler’s book has been a hit with my own 4- and 6-year olds, as was his earlier effort, Bear in Underwear.  Animals are spotted in their undies far more frequently than vegetables at the library. In fact, one could put together a whole reading list simply by searching the catalog for “Underwear—Juvenile fiction” (a Library of Congress subject heading yet to be established back when I was in Underoos).

Animals in Underwear ABC displays the lingerie of a whole menagerie, and Polar Bear’s Underwear reveals not only what polar bears wear under there. Peter Bently’s Underpants Thunderpants and Underpants Wonderpants require no further comment. And Frenchman Michael Escoffier’s Brief Thief tells how the sous-vetements of a chameleon are repurposed as a hat by a hapless rabbit; (sadly, no Library of Congress subject heading yet exists for the underwear-on-head sub-genre).

One can’t overlook British contributions to the undie oeuvre, for the scepter’d isle has given us not only George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but also Clare Freedman’s Aliens in Underpants Save the World.  In fact, Freedman and illustrator Ben Cort’s body of work, given over entirely to the pantie particulars of pirates, monsters, dinosaurs, and the dubiously named Panta Claus, has pushed the genre far beyond the merely pantaclaanimal and vegetable.

But as in so many endeavors, America’s literary skivvies shine brightest, for what else but Yankee ingenuity can account for the success of Captain Underpants?  As selector of children’s materials for the library, I must admit to a long-standing annoyance with Dav Pilkey’s series, a movie version of which hit theaters earlier this summer.

One reason is that, due to the built in “Flip-o-Rama technology” included in the books, which instructs kids to grab a page and turn it rapidly back and forth to animate a series of illustrations, worn out copies frequently cross my desk as candidates for replacement.  Then there is that other little thing: They are more obnoxious than a stuck elevator full of 4th graders snorting pixie sticks.

But I had never actually read one until recently, when my son aged into them and began belly laughing his way through the series. They are books best appreciated in the presence of their target audience, and while they may hold little reward for adults, many of us can recognize in them exactly what we always wanted to read when we were kids.

To his credit, in a children’s publishing industry struggling for diversity, Dav Pilkey has quietly (if anything the creator of a villain named Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants Esq. does can be called quiet) featured African-American and LGBTQ protagonists for decades, as well as characters who experience the same challenges related to dyslexia and ADHD he faced in school, when a teacher told him not to waste his life “making silly books.”

He showed them, cranking out books with initial print runs of a million copies, to be translated into 20 languages, with titles like Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman, forcing those same teachers to ask themselves tough questions, such as: “How does one translate the phrase ‘wicked wedgie woman’ anyway?”capitanunderpants

I was curious, too, so I asked Worldcat, the vast global library catalog whose bad behavior at times rivals that of Pilkey’s Turbo Toilet 2000 or Ridiculous Robo-Boogers.  Luckily, this time it cooperated.  In Spanish, “wicked wedgie woman” translates to supermujer macroelastica. The French keep it classy, of course: cruelle madam culotte.  It sounds scariest in German: mönströsen madame muffelpo, but Finnish is my favorite: hurjan hierrenaisen hirmutuuli.

Speaking of macroelasticas, I’ll now quote my son, who, due to his current tendency to outgrow clothes within the course of a single day, has stumbled upon the ultimate reason to depart immediately from wherever he doesn’t want to be anymore.  As an excuse it’s unimpeachable, since anyone who hears it—animal, vegetable, or extra-terrestrial—can relate.

“I gotta go.  My underwear is too tight.”

–Dan Coleman is a Collection Development Librarian at Lawrence Public Library

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