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‘Captain Underpants’ creator Dav Pilkey turned ADHD into a superpower

The author and illustrator of the best-selling ‘Captain Underpants’ and ‘Dog Man’ graphic novels on how his struggles in school unleashed his creativity.

‘Captain Underpants’ creator Dav Pilkey turned ADHD into a superpower
[Illustration: Aistė Stancikaitė; source image: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Greenwich International Film Festival]

I try to get a few hours of work done before breakfast. I’ve noticed that when I first wake, I’m still kind of half in a dreamlike state, so it’s good for creativity. I only drink water. I stay away from coffee until I need a little jolt. My wife will call me down for breakfast, we’ll talk for a while, and then I go back upstairs. I usually work straight through until late afternoon, when I’ll take a walk, go kayaking, and get out into nature. We’ll have dinner, and then I go back to work until 7 or as late as 12. It takes me anywhere between two and six hours to sketch, write, and revise each page. And it takes between four and five months of solid work, seven days a week, to complete one book. My goal is to write two books a year.

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I’ve been working on [the Dog Man series] since second grade. I was always getting into trouble at school, and my teachers would send me into the hallway. They didn’t have the term ADHD then; they called it extreme hyperactivity. I felt like a misfit, very alone and ashamed. I also have dyslexia and wasn’t able to read as well as everybody else. But being out in the hallway ended up being a blessing. That’s when I would write and draw my stories. It gave me time to focus and be creative, and gave me a way to reinvent myself. My classmates knew me as the kid who was always in trouble. But when I came back into the classroom with a comic that I’d made, they’d crowd around to read it.

I created a character for [the Dog Man series] whose name is 80-HD. He’s a robot who doesn’t communicate the same way everyone else does. But he’s powerful and creative, and very, very valuable. I hope kids make that connection: that there’s nothing to be ashamed of with [ADHD]. It’s something to be proud of. It’s a superpower. It could be the best thing that ever happened to you.

Time he gets up: 5 a.m.

First thing he does in the morning: “I’ll read over what I’ve done so far and start writing the next part.”

Mantra: “‘ABC: Always Be Creating.’ When I finish a book, I want to start the next one the next day. It’s important to keep the brain as active as possible.”

What’s on his desk: “Pictures of kids I’ve met on book tours. My walls have drawings of my characters that children have given me, [which] keeps me inspired and focused.”

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How he handles social media: “I’m not really active on social media because I don’t have a cellphone. I had one about a decade ago, but I was with a friend and he dropped his in some water, so I gave him mine. I never got another one. I realized that I didn’t like the idea of people being able to interrupt me at any time when I was thinking. But I do have an iPad and post something on Instagram two or three times a week.”

Best habit: “Working at this every day.”

Worst habit: “Sometimes I’ll realize that I haven’t gotten out of my chair for four or five hours. I have a Fitbit that vibrates if I go an hour without moving—I’ll get up and walk around the studio for 250 steps and then go back to work.”

Last thing he does at night: “Read, on paper.”

Time he goes to bed: “I try to be asleep by midnight.”

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