Diary of a Wimpy Kid
a novel in cartoons
Written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney
Amulet Books, 2007.

I split my working hours between a middle school and an elementary school. In both of these schools, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is insanely popular. In the elementary school, it is easily the most popular chapter book. Kids who "hate reading" have read all five books, and light up with a big smile when I ask them about it. They then start playing the 'cheese touch' game, which apparently involves poking at each other and crossing your fingers. I figured that I had better read the book.

Diary wasn't quite what I expected. For one thing, it is actually a 'diary of a troublemaker', not a wimpy kid. For another, it was actually pretty good. It is written as if it were a real diary journal, penned and heavily illustrated by a young boy, Gregory Heffley, who is just entering middle school. He writes about his struggles to become more popular, to take advantage of his friends, to get girls to notice him, and to play the system (both school and parental). It is, of course, written in the first person, and derives much of its humor from the fact that Gregory does not realize that he is actually quite a jerk.

There isn't much of a plot. It is basically a collection of short anecdotes about an 'average' kid. He tells of practical jokes his brother plays on him, ways he's found to get around his parents' rules, his plans to run for student government, dumb things his dad does, how taunting teenagers can backfire, and time and time again, how he manages to push around and abuse his best friend. It stays pretty close to issues that a normal kid would be focusing on daily (although in exaggerated form) and it is often stupid, silly, and/or gross (a lá Captain Underpants). This is exactly what young kids want, so I guess that makes this a good book.

Even better, this is a great book for kids who aren't yet enjoying reading. It is written in a large font, with double spacing between each paragraph, with frequent breaks for illustrations that are integral parts of the story. On average there is as much drawing on a page as there is text, giving plenty of rest breaks for the slow reader. The chapters are short, and the anecdotes are amusing. There are currently five books in the series, and no end in sight. This is exactly what a reluctant reader needs.

While this book is theoretically written for 11-year-olds, it is actually closer to an 8- to 9-year-old reading level (although some of the vocabulary might be a bit hard). The subject matter, on the other hand, is a bit more relevant for middle-schoolers. Apparently, this is the formula for a best seller...

Oh, apparently it was also made into some kind of a movie. Someone else can write about that.

The "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series, written by Jeff Kinney has now stretched to six books, with a seventh book scheduled for release later this year. The series shows no signs of slowing down.

Each book is a series of picaresque adventures by Greg Heffley, the titular "wimpy kid". Although the title is perhaps a bit misleading: Greg Heffley is not extraordinarily wimpy, but instead is about at the middle of the middle school hierarchy. He also has a fairly typical family, consisting of a suburban father and mother, his big brother Roderick, and his spoiled baby brother Manny. He goes to a normal public middle school, where he faces problems with social pressures and liking girls.

If you think that all sounds perfectly mediocre, you might be right. That at least was my impression about half-way through the first book. And for the book's "target market", that also might be the case. Somewhere in the first book, I realized the joke, and realized why these books were more than just fun, easily read books about youthful misadventures.

While the books are the self-described adventures of a "wimpy" kid, Greg Heffley is not a poor poetic soul trapped in a world that is too cruel for him. He is a typical kid, and his wimpiness is most glaring in his constant inability to morally or intellectually think about the consequences of what he is doing. He constantly shirks responsibility, lies and cheats, and tries to manipulate his parents and his school, and he always fails, without ever coming to the conclusion that he might somehow be to blame for what happens. It would have been easy to write a series of books about the poor nice kid who was always the victim of the cool kids. Instead, the narrator admits that he wants to be in the position of picking on other kids, he just doesn't know how to acquire that power.

These books actually are somewhat unique in not just young adult literature, but in literature for any ages: they have a protagonist that is basically unsympathetic. And why this is a valuable thing for kids to read (even if they might not get the joke at first), is it brings up the radical idea that sometimes, it isn't authority figures or the media or the cruel world that has put us in our situation. Sometimes, the person to blame is actually ourselves. I am happy that youth of today are receiving this message, even if they might not realize it for a while.

After writing that, I should say that I might be overstating the case. The books can be read without this message in mind, and while Greg Heffley is in many ways not an ideal character, the reader still feels sympathetic towards him as he negotiates the process of growing up in a confusing world. And both the writings and the drawings are often spot-on parodies of things I remember from being that age. Grouchy teachers and clueless parents are portrayed perfectly.

When I first heard about these books, I thought they were a silly fad. After having read them, I think that they will have some staying power, and are actually important books in communicating ideas of responsibility.

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