everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

Archive for captain underpants

Eat Spam, You Dumb Bunnies! Dav Pilkey and the Funny “Good Night Moon” Room Story

 

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A friend who loves Dav Pilkey’s funny books about the Dumb Bunnies recently asked me how we were able to get permission to use the famous Good Night Moon room on the cover of the first book, The Dumb Bunnies. Her question reminded me of a wild and unexpected series of events that happened as we created that cover. It makes me laugh now, but at the time, I was not laughing.

Dav sent me the dummy for The Dumb Bunnies long ago before The Adventures of Captain Underpants made him a household name. I put the dummy in my work bag and took it home. I remember it was raining, because I was standing in my NJ kitchen in my wet, black raincoat when I pulled the package out of my bag and put it on my kitchen counter. I was still wearing my coat when I read the whole thing.

You probably don’t know my sister JoAnn, but one of the things we share is a passion for Jim Marshall’s picture book The Stupids Die. A million years ago when we both lived in Boston, we used to read that book together, over and over, with peals of laughter. I had the same kind of laughter when I read The Dumb Bunnies, and I knew my sister would love it. I had tears streaming down my face, and I called her on the kitchen phone to tell her about it.

In-house we had many discussions about this controversial book. Other than Marshall’s The Stupids Die and the other Stupids books, I’m not sure this kind of humor had seen the light of day very often in children’s books. But Jean Feiwel and Barbara Marcus both understood great humor and both had a wonderful sense of what appeals to children. They could see what was appealing about the book, and they both backed Dav and me–so we were able to proceed.

We were in a meeting talking about marketing and publicity one day when Barbara came up with the idea of putting a sticker on the cover—a gold sticker that would be the kind we use when one of our books wins an award. It was her suggestion that the sticker should say something to this effect: This book is too dumb to win an award.

Geniuses, both of them. So we found a nice spot on the side of the front jacket for the sticker and proceeded to have them manufactured.

Meanwhile I was biting my nails because we still needed permission to use the famous Good Night Moon room on the cover of the book. Good Night Moon is about as sacred and treasured a classic as any children’s book can be, so I was hyperventilating about getting permission from both Harper and the Hurd estate to use Dav’s funny parody of it. I had been Editor-in-Chief at Harcourt prior to coming to Scholastic, and it was my private opinion that at Harcourt I would not have had a prayer of getting approval to use that cover parody. Jean assured me that Scholastic had very good relationships with Harper, in part because of our book clubs and book fairs, and that she didn’t think they would object. Another major difference between Scholastic and every other children’s publisher—I was constantly being amazed by the contrast.

Time passed, and the job of designing The Dumb Bunnies was given to Kathy Westray, who was either freelancing or had just joined Scholastic full-time after designing From Sea to Shining Sea. Her office was a cubicle, and she brought the finished mechanicals to my desk and left them for me to proofread. She’d done a lot of innovative, interesting things with the cover and interiors, and it was the first book of mine she’d designed. I could immediately see her brilliance—in my opinion, she is the best living book designer in the world—and after I carefully checked the mechanicals, I went to her cubicle, dazed.

“In all my years of being an editor, this is the very first time I have ever received a set of mechanicals that is perfect,” I said. It was true. Every design choice she’d made on the book enhanced it. For more than a dozen years, I was used to designs that had to be done again and again with typeface changes, margins off, ugly borders, unreadable titles…and The Dumb Bunnies was perfect in every way. (I would soon ask Kathy to become the Art Director for my imprint, the Blue Sky Press, and more than twenty years later, she still designs all my books…and I am thankful every day.)

Not long after, I got the amazing green light from Jean Feiwel that she had gotten approval for me to use the Good Night Moon room parody on the cover. So we went to press.

And I am trying to remember when exactly it was that I saw I had made a very big mistake on the book cover.

It was so big a mistake that I have probably blocked it out of my mind.

There, on a table next to the fireplace, was a can of Spam.

Yes, Spam.

     A trademarked can of ham—or something like ham–manufactured by Hormel.

And had I gotten permission from Hormel to use Spam on my book cover?

No.

     I was so occupied with getting permission from Harper and the others for the Good Night Moon room parody that I hadn’t even thought about the Spam. There it sat, and the book was printed—not shipped, but printed—and I dashed out a letter to Hormel and politely gave them all the reasons why it was an excellent idea to have Spam featured on the cover of The Dumb Bunnies.

     I was very, very, very worried about getting permission, but I could not imagine that they would deny it. Surely they would see the humor, and there wasn’t any harm in it, and it was a relatively small print run of a book by a relatively new talent….

Permission denied.

Hormel did not see the humor in the way its “food product” (I quote) was presented on the cover of my book.

I drafted more letters. Made phone calls. Begged. Pleaded.

Permission denied.

     I believe we shredded 30,000 posters that featured Spam on the cover of the book. We used to make a lot of posters back then, and I remember that our Marketing/Publicity Director, Doris Bass, was sympathetic. But what to do about the cover?

Barbara Marcus had saved the day with her idea of a sticker on the book. The sticker looked great, and miraculously the glue on the sticker was like cement. Once pressed onto the cover, it would not come off.

And although we had not planned to place the sticker so close to the center of the book jacket, it did a terrific job of eliminating the can of Spam. (This isn’t a great reproduction, but you can see where the sticker was placed on this first edition/first printing. As well, you may be able to see that the author, Dav, called himself “Sue Denim,” and it was always interesting that a vast number of people wanted to know about “Sue”–I hope you get the joke. If you don’t, think about it. In later editions the credits both went to Dav Pilkey, and the display type was changed to match The Adventures of Captain Underpants.)

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So that is why, if you are lucky enough to have a first edition/first printing of The Dumb Bunnies, you now know that under that sticker is hidden a can of Spam. “This book is too dumb to win an award” is the perfect gold medal to cover it up, don’t you agree?

We removed the Spam in the second printing, and the third and fourth and fifth and who-knows-how-many since; all these years later the book is still fresh and popular–because Dav had created a magnificent book that gave millions of children (including my sister and me) many more opportunities to laugh.

And I was—and still am—the happiest Dumb Bunny of all.

Captain Underpants and the Big Pitch

We are in Chicago, sitting in the cafeteria of the Art Institute of Chicago. It is a modest lunch, and our sandwiches are still on paper plates on our plastic trays.

I brought Dav Pilkey to this museum because he likes Chagall, and I have been hoping he will love the stained glass windows here. He does. Last night, on the phone, he repeatedly told me to “bring a big glove” to lunch because today he is going to give me “a really big pitch.”  Now I am waiting.

The big pitch comes. I can see he is nervous, but I don’t know why. He tells me about going to grade school and being punished so often the teacher put a designated Dav Pilkey desk in the hallway.

Day after day he sat alone out there with pencils and paper, and what did he do? He drew.

He tells me he made up superheroes. His favorite, he says, was one called Captain Underpants. Superheroes, he says, all seem to dress in their underwear. He explains he wants to make a book that will feature Captain Underpants.

I laugh. It’s a great idea.  “I love it,” I say. “Let’s do it.”

He gives me a very curious look, as if I’ve just said something in Chinese.

“Really?” he asks.

“Of course. Why not?”

 

The first Captain Underpants book.

The first Captain Underpants book. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

We change the subject and talk about Chagall and some of the other artists at the Institute. Then we bus our trays and go back to the galleries.

It is only much later that I come to understand that something big has happened. Not to me, because I love Dav’s sense of humor. I get it. I always have. And I’m a happy camper because now I have a funny new book to publish.

But something big has happened to Dav Pilkey. All his life, grown-ups have ridiculed his humor. They’ve punished him for it. And they’ve sweetly added things like “you’ll never get anywhere in life with those stupid drawings.”  He is certain the answer to the Captain Underpants book will be a resounding no. Instead, his editor said yes. No argument, no persuasion, no resistance at all.

So he didn’t give a big pitch, and I didn’t need a big glove. And I don’t feel smart for saying yes, because humor is subjective. Millions of people find Dav’s sense of humor really, really funny. Maybe you do, too. Or maybe you don’t. In book publishing a lot depends on making a good match–the way Barry Cunningham loved Harry Potter, and some other editors didn’t. I’m a big believer in single editorial vision, because it works for me, and obviously it worked for Barry Cunningham. I don’t believe committees can have a single vision. And in humor that’s particularly deadly since a group rarely agrees that something is funny. You love the Three Stooges, and your neighbor hates them.

I’d like to say the road to publication of The Adventures of Captain Underpants  was simple and smooth, but because it’s humor, it wasn’t. A number of people along the way wanted the book cancelled, and they were very angry and vocal about it. But Jean Feiwel backed us up and drowned them out. Barbara Marcus and Dick Robinson gave their support.  Roz Hilden, one of the most respected sales reps at that time, boldly announced it was her favorite book of the season.  And although our initial print run was only 10,000 paperbacks, Alan Boyko, in Scholastic Book Fairs, was so wildly enthusiastic about the book that his division sold something like 700,000 copies in the first season. I may be wrong about the number, but whatever it was, it was astronomical. And the last time I looked, the worldwide number of books in print was hovering somewhere around 60 million. What these books have done to promote literacy is one of the great victories of our time.

What’s my point?

This is a simple story with a happy ending. Volumes could be written about Dav Pilkey and his wonderful books, and they probably will be written–someday. I skipped past the fascinating stories behind Dogzilla and Kat Kong and Dog Breath and The Hallo-wiener, but I wouldn’t have been able to publish Dav Pilkey at all if Dogzilla, Kat Kong, and Dog Breath hadn’t been rejected elsewhere. That never stopped Dav. He is such an inspiration. I guess what I’m trying to say is that many of the most accomplished writers I’ve published–Dav Pilkey, Virginia Hamilton, the Woods, and Rodman Philbrick, for example–have had an unflagging willingness to take risks, and in many cases, they failed repeatedly before they became successful. Most people don’t know that it took Virginia ten years to get published. Rod wrote novels for twelve years before he got his first contract. In her inspiring TED talks, Dr. Brene Brown calls the collective TED speakers “the failure club.”  Why? Because before they became the genius successes that brought them to TED, they failed–and usually failed repeatedly, sometimes in very public arenas. ” Take risks,” she says. “Do your best. And if you fail, you fail having dared greatly.”  Just because you’re assigned to a desk in the hall, and your teachers say your drawings are worthless, it doesn’t mean they’re right.

During my divorce, Dav gently reminded me that if those teachers hadn’t belittled and punished him, we wouldn’t have Mr. Krupp, and George and Harold, and Captain Underpants. Sometimes very happy things come out of pain, he said.

And that’s the truth.

Cover of

Cover of Dog Breath

 

The Hallo-Wiener

The Hallo-Wiener (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Kat Kong

Kat Kong (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

Cover of

Cover of Dogzilla (digest)

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