Clever Book Fosters New Readers


Any seven or eight-year-old kid reading this: you probably already know about the topic I’m writing about today. Your parents and grandparents know, too. Sorry to waste your time. Instead of reading further, go out and get some ice cream while I update everyone else about Dog Man.
With the school year getting underway, I thought you might be interested in this subversive learning tool that is helping young students show up for first grade with better reading skills and, well, a love for reading. It’s not officially sanctioned by school districts, however, it has been creeping into the culture for some time, and has its detractors. But juvenile fiction featuring Dog Man has been a game-changer in fostering engaged and motivated new readers in the early primary grades.
Let my 7-year-old grandson, Silas, explain the plot: “Basically, Petey the Cat causes an accident, and Officer Knight’s head gets cut off and so does his police dog’s head. So, they sew the cop’s head onto the dog’s body, and it turns out to be a dog policeman who’s a superhero.” He left out the best part: the book is full of puns, potty humor, and the occasional portrayal of adults in authority as blowhards or fools.
The series is one of the more popular in a growing genre of literature for young people called the graphic novel. These are not comic books, but fully plotted stories with humorous content presented in a hard-cover illustrated style. Dog Man’s biggest followers are boys in grades two through four.
At the Sylvania Branch Library on Monroe Street, children’s librarian Heidi Yeager told me the Dog Man books are always checked out. “Kids just gravitate to them, because it speaks to how they talk, how they feel, what they are experiencing,” she said. “What the author does so well is getting young readers interested—bold print, big pictures, funny. They are always driven by the kids’ sensibilities and that’s why they work for this age group.”
On my morning at the library, I encountered third-grader Brolan Roehrig and his mom, Lisa, who were scouring the stacks for a new Dog Man episode. “These are good books to help him start to read,” Lisa said. “I like the adventure,” added Brolan. “The bad guys get beat all the time.”
A Cleveland native and Kent State graduate, Dog Man author Dav Pilkey was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in second grade. His behavior in class was so disruptive that he was often assigned to a desk in the school hallway. There he channeled his drawing talent into creating his own comic books and characters such as “Captain Underpants”—which eventually became the wildly popular book series that first made him famous.
Amanda Sanderson, a second-grade teacher at Stranahan Elementary, said a big benefit of Dog Man is encouraging “reluctant readers” to pick up a book. “The content is silly and unpredictable—there’s so much going on. It’s what these readers are looking for,” she noted. “The books have more art and less text, but they also offer a denser vocabulary. The content is so engaging that it encourages readers to figure out new words so they can find out what happens next.”
Mrs. Sanderson admits that the appeal of Dog Man tends to be greater among boys than girls. But she says Pilkey has plans to add more gender and ethnic diversity in future works, including his latest series called “Cat Kid.”
At the library, Ms. Yeager also recognizes the greater interest in Dog Man among young men. But, she explained, her staff quickly refers girls to similarly written books like “Dragonbreath” and “Comic Squad” that they relate to better. “We are here to promote early literacy, and if we can help that by connecting a book to any child, I’m for it,” she said.
Despite all nine Dog Man books clinching the #1 bestseller spot for juvenile and adult fiction combined, Pilkey’s work also tops banned book lists around the world—often beating out Fifty Shades of Grey. Criticism in an online review from one mom is typical: “Dog Man contains multiple references to human and animal feces … there are scenes of smoking, violence, nudity … and don’t get me started on the spelling and grammar.”
Sylvania parents I talked to seem to take a different view. Stonybrook neighbor Noreen Pezzino said her 7-year-old son, Roman, has been reading Dog Man for a year. “Of course, I preview everything my children want to read, but I’m willing to overlook the bathroom humor if it means he will pick up a book instead of spending time in front of the television or an iPad,” she said.
She added, “The author’s objective is to entertain, and Dav Pilkey knows his audience. The reality is that young boys like poo jokes. And at this age, any book they want to read is a good book.”

Longtime Sylvania resident Mark Luetke has served on city council, the board of education, and numerous foundation and community boards.

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