“Captain Underpants” and the Not-So-Stinky Same-Sex Surprise

captunderpantscoverHere’s something worth talking about besides the never-ending nonsense in Kentucky. The “Captain Underpants” series, which is widely beloved by children and widely poo-poo’ed by fuddy-duddies, went out with a major mic drop last week.

If you haven’t read “Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-a-Lot” yet, consider this a spoiler warning. In the 12th and reportedly final book in the series, author Dav Pilkey reveals very quietly that one of the major characters that kids have been reading about for almost 20 years now, will grow up to marry a man. It happens when the two friends at the center of the story travel to the future and see themselves with their future families. One of those families looks like this:

captunderpants3

“Soon, everyone had gathered together in Old Geroge’s studio. Old George, his wife, and their kids, Meena and Nik, sat on the couch, while Old Harold, his husband, and their twins, Owen and Kei, plopped down in the giant beanbag chair.”

And that’s it. Then comes another 86 pages of time travel, stinky gas and three helpful creatures that are half bionic hamsters and half pterodactyls.

I wouldn’t even call this a “twist”. If Harold’s sexual orientation was never mentioned before in the series, it’s only because he’s 10 years old when the rest of the story takes place. 10-year-old boys have about a million concerns more pressing than who they’re going to marry someday, so I’m not surprised that the issue didn’t arise while they were battling farts and whatnot.

Of course, I especially loved hearing this news because my family looks a lot like Harold’s family.

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I only wish I had been able to see that picture when I was 10 years old. It would’ve made the following 20 years or so a lot more bearable to know that I was going to have a husband and kids when I grew up. So the thought of Harold getting that glimpse of his future made me very happy, not so much for the fictional character as for the hordes of real-life kids who’ll get a chance to see something I never got to see when I was their age.

Because I’m a sadist, I went to the book’s Amazon page to see what reviewers were saying about this revelation. Not surprisingly, some people accused Pilkey of having a political agenda. I was about in mid-eyeroll from that accusation when I saw that the book also had a bunch of jokes about the GOP (“Grouchy Old People”) and FOX News.

The "GOP", according to Dav Pilkey

The “GOP”, according to Dav Pilkey

So maybe this was a calculated move on Pilkey’s part. If so, good for him. There’s always been room for controversial topics in middle grade fiction. Ask anyone who grew up reading Judy Blume. Ultimately, I suspect Pilkey didn’t make his creative choice for attention or because he’s beholden to some radical gay agenda. He did it because he knows and cares about his readers. He knows some of them will grow up to be gay, and pretty much all of them will grow up knowing and caring about someone who’s gay. A few of them will even go to school with my kids, and when they get to that part of “Sir Stinks-a-Lot”, they’ll go, “Oh, yeah. That’s like my friends’ family!”

Most importantly, though, I’d imagine Pilkey wrote the book this way because he knows his characters, and he’s probably been aware for a while that Harold is gay.

Oh, and it looks like George, the African-American kid, may have married a Caucasian woman, if that’s worth noting at all. (No one on Amazon seems to care, at least.)captunderpants5

The good news is that as I read the Amazon reviews, I noticed two important things about the one-star smackdowns: First, they made up a mere 8% of the book’s total reviews (which I know is likely to change if some Grouchy Old People decide to start a hate campaign against the book), and second, they’re all from grown-ups.

The kids who reviewed the book — the actual intended audience — mostly gave it rave reviews. 77% of them (as of the publication of this post) rated it 4 or 5 stars.

OK, OK, but how did the kids feel about the big reveal that Harold was gay?

It’s hard to say, honestly. Only a handful of them even bothered to mention it.

Pics reprinted from “Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-a-Lot” by Dav Pilkey (Scholastic, Inc., copyright 2015).

The Mommy Man Guide to This Year’s Awesomest Mother’s Day Books!

Whether you celebrate Mother’s Day, Other’s Day and/or, like my family, you double down on Father’s Day, it’s time to start thinking of gifts for those important parental figures in your life. If you’re a Mommy Man fan, I have great news, because I have some awesome books to recommend, two of which are released today… and two of which feature me!

LTYMbook1. Listen To Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now – Edited by Ann Imig

In case you haven’t heard, Listen To Your Mother is a storytelling series run by Ann Imig and performed in various cities every year around Mother’s Day, where people share their tales of motherhood. If you haven’t seen a Listen To Your Mother live show, you’re missing out. I know, because I performed in one. (My story was more about what my family came up with in place of motherhood. You can watch my reading here.) When I did the show, I got to meet some amazing women, who were also amazing writers and storytellers.

Now, Ann has collected some of her favorite stories from over the last few years in this anthology. Some are funny, some are sad and all of them are great reads. Best of all, I’m in it, with a story called, “More Than an Aunt, Less Than a Mom”. I’m so proud of this story and of being associated with this book and all the fantastic, big-shot writers in it. Definitely check it out!

gummibears2. Gummi Bears Should Not Be Organic: And Other Opinions I Can’t Back Up With Facts – Stefanie Wilder-Taylor

One of the best parts of performing in Listen To Your Mother was getting to meet Stefanie Wilder-Taylor. I’d known of her as the hilarious and insightful writer behind such bestsellers as Sippy Cups are Not For Chardonnay and Naptime is the New Happy Hour and one of the staunchest advocates of (some might even say the pioneer behind) the two-martini playdate. I was hardly prepared for the story she read that day, a raw, heartbreaking and yet still hilarious piece about coming to grips with the fact that actually, she had an alcohol problem.

Now you can read Stefanie’s story “Cocktail Playdate Dropout” in the Listen To Your Mother book above (and you should — it’s fantastic). And if that’s not enough Stefanie for you, you can see that she’s just as witty and wonderful on the wagon in this brand new book of hers.

I’m telling you, you can’t go wrong with some SWT, and your mom will love it, too.

MommyManCover3. Mommy Man: How I Went From Mild-Mannered Geek to Gay Superdad by Jerry Mahoney

I may have mentioned this one before.

It came out last year just barely under the wire for Mother’s Day, so you might’ve missed your chance to buy this for the moms in your life. Well, it’s not too late! Mommy Man is as mom-friendly as ever, full of jokes that’ll make her laugh, a few that’ll make her blush and plenty of emotional reflections on parenthood that’ll make her gush.

If you didn’t buy my book for your mom last year, this is your chance to redeem yourself, before this happens…

What I Didn’t Find Funny About “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”

Funny_Story_frontThere’s nothing like reading a book about depression to bring you down. It’s a shame, though, when that wasn’t the author’s point. Warning: this post contains vague spoilers about the book It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, so if you’re planning to read it, you can skip this for now. Just be warned that the book kind of spoils itself on the last page. If you’re still reading, I’ll explain…

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a very good book and a sensitive, illuminating portrayal of mental illness. The main character, a 15-year-old high school student under a ton of adolescent pressure, checks himself into a psychiatric ward after having suicidal thoughts. Over five days there, he meets some other troubled people, learns a lot about himself and finds the inspiration to go on with life. It’s even more emotionally involving when you know that it was based on the author’s own time spent in a similar institution and that he himself struggled with depression for many years. It’s been a bestseller, was adapted into a movie and has become a favorite of YA readers everywhere.

So what’s my problem? Well, on the very last page of the book, the main character, Craig, is running through a mental checklist of how to go on with his life after leaving the institution. It’s a beautiful monologue, until near the end, when he says this:

“Travel. Fly. Swim. Meet. Love. Dance. Win. Smile. Laugh. Hold. Walk. Skip. Okay, it’s gay, whatever, skip.”

Wait… what? “It’s gay”? Really? I’ve been emotionally involved in your struggle for 317 e-pages and you reward me with a crude sucker punch in the fourth-to-last paragraph? There’s no homophobia in the book until then. Other than a few fleeting moments involving a transgender resident, there are no LGBTQ characters at all. Just a lot of sensitively-portrayed, troubled individuals who were probably loosely based on the real residents Vizzini encountered in his hospital stay.

I love a good cry when I’m reading a book, and I’ll bet a lot of people cried at the ending to this one, but not me. I wanted to throw it across the room. I might’ve done it, too, if it wasn’t an ebook. No way I’m wrecking my iPhone over something like that. What infuriated me was that, while reading this character’s mental pep talk, I suddenly felt transported back to being a depressed 15-year-old myself, and this book that was written to inspire depressed 15-year-olds was actually mocking me.

Here’s a passage from my memoir “Mommy Man” in which I talk about what it was like growing up in a world rife with casual homophobia:

“As a gay kid, all I could do was suck it up, play straight, and play along. I never knew when my homophobia might be tested. I would go to see a perfectly fun movie like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, only to find out one of the running jokes was the two loveable protagonists calling each other “fag.” No one warned the public about it, no critics condemned it as hateful, no one even thought it was worth commenting on. It was just a joke, and judging by the reaction of the audience around me, a hilarious one. So I was forced to bust a gut, too — unless I wanted someone to think I was some kind of fag myself.

Everyone raved about the movie Lucas, in which Corey Haim played a sad, scrawny outcast who tried to win over the girl of his dreams by joining the high school football team. Sad, scrawny outcast? Sign me up! The reviews said it was sweet and heartwarming — and it was — but smack in the middle is a scene where Lucas accuses the bad guy of being a ‘fag’ in the locker room showers, supposedly a moment of stand-up-and-cheer comeuppance for a character we despise. Watching that scene with my friends, I died a little inside. (On the plus side, though, there were naked jocks.)”

Sure, the 80’s were full of casual awfulness. Casual racism, casual sexism, casual date rape, all wrapped up in a quirky New Wave neon package. As a 43-year-old man in 2015, I’m happy that those kinds of things are no longer acceptable and can no longer go unquestioned. (Read Dave Holmes’ excellent open letter to Kid Rock for more on this subject.) But It’s Kind of a Funny Story came out in 2007. Long after the message was out about how using “gay” as a pejorative is bad for gay kids, a writer wrote it, an editor declined to edit it out, a publisher published it and tons of gay kids undoubtedly read it, just like I did.

That’s what really upsets me. The book worked so hard to describe and sympathize with the suicidal impulses of its characters. We know that gay kids attempt suicide four times as much as straight kids. So why the gratuitous gay slur amid an otherwise uplifting monologue? As I read it, all I could picture was how it would feel to be a depressed gay teen who might be totally engrossed in the book and inspired by the ending… only to unexpectedly get the message, right in the final sentences, “Hold on, this isn’t about you. You’re weird.”

Tragically, Ned Vizzini lost his own battle with depression when he committed suicide in 2013 at the age of 32.  I’m not trying to tarnish his legacy or accuse him of homophobia. It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a wonderful book that has undoubtedly brought comfort to a lot of unhappy adolescents (and grownups for that matter). Its author was probably a great guy who thought he was making a harmless joke and just capturing the way teenagers really talk. I wish he were still here to respond — and to write more books.

For any depressed LGBTQ kids who might be reading this one, though, I hope they know that the message still applies to them, that they can overcome their thoughts of suicide, and most of all, I hope they bought the book in paperback, so if the mood strikes them, when they’re done, they can throw it across the room.