Sunday, March 2, 2008

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney - review

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is big. Movie contract, 4 sequels in the works, 40-some weeks on the Best Seller list, including a stint at NUMBAH ONE. It's on our list of Great Books for Kids at the library where I work. In addition, there's a rockin' website, and most importantly, it circulates like crazy - the middle grade boys (mostly) take one look at the goofy cartoons that augment the text, and they do not let go. Not bad for a book that started as a webcomic.

I read and reviewed it a while ago. It was an extremely ambivalent review.

Here's the premise: the titular Wimpy Kid, Greg Heffley, is a middle-school lightweight. By his own reckoning, he's the 52nd or 53rd most popular kid this year. His life is full of the usual middle school misery - an older brother who plays tricks on him, a baby brother he sometimes has to tend, and a dorky best friend, Rowley, who has yet to get his middle-school groove on. The kind of guy a lot of kids can probably identify with.

And like a lot of kids, Greg always tries to find the easy way around the obstacles that face him. Unfortunately, the solutions he come up with frequently involve trying to copy the success of others, exploiting younger or less-popular kids, and crapping all over poor Rowley.

When I initially reviewed this book, my main reaction was: Ick. As the mother of boys, I imagined my own children exhibiting the unremitting lack of consideration that mars Greg's every action, and it broke my heart to think of a child so devoid of empathy.

Doesn't mean I haven't recommended the book. There are some middle grade boys - boys who think fantasy is a ridiculous waste of time, boys who read Calvin & Hobbes and maybe Captain Underpants - and when I see those guys, I press Diary of a Wimpy Kid into their hands. There's nothing wrong with Calvin and Hobbes (I think it was Mo Willems who stated that for the record, and I thank him), but it can't hurt to give a kid another author to read.

However, if it's a parent who has heard about the book, I explain my reservations about the character, hand him or her a copy, suggest that the parent and kid have a conversation about the character once the kid has finished the book, and usually hand the parent a copy of Frindle in addition.

So - just today, Jeff Kinney was in the local paper, and I sat and re-evaluated my opinion of the book.

On the one hand - I can't be too hard on a book that is so popular with those non-fantasy-reading boys. They're a tough, underserved crowd, and props to Jeff Kinney for throwing them a bone.

Besides, children's literature is chock-full of ingenious boys and girls who invent ingenious plans for avoiding work or getting out of trouble. We think Tom Sawyer is smart and charming for exploiting his more-gullible friends and neighbors so that he doesn't have to paint the fence, and we want him to get away with it.

But on the other hand - well, let's let the author, put it in a nutshell. "Oftentimes, Greg does something or says something that needs correction," Kinney says, "and as a reader, you're waiting for an adult to step in and correct him. But none ever does, and I think that's part of the fun of the book." Oh. Is it, indeed, part of the fun? Did I just age an additional 15 years writing that last sentence? That's not music, that's just noise!

Really, though, Greg's life kind of sucks, mainly as a result of his selfish deeds, and while adult readers recognize that right away, I think that Greg's young audience needs to have that spelled out for them a little. That's where correction comes in - as a consequence, as an opportunity for Greg to learn from his thoughtlessness - or not, that can be funny too. The only character that ever gets wise to Greg's jerkiness is the mom - her eyes are blank behind her glasses, but her body language more than expresses her disgust for her son's actions.

In the end, though... I frequently defend books that parents turn up their noses... at. Junie B. Jones uses bad grammar and she's kind of a brat. Clementine cut all her hair off and colored her head with a purple Sharpie. The kids in Nurse Matilda do terrible things with farm animals, toilets, and treacle pudding. When I defend these books, and in some cases talk them up enthusiastically, the gist of my argument is that any child not raised by wolves can tell the difference between real life behavior and behavior that's exaggerated just to be funny. A kid can watch Speed Racer every morning before school for six years and never once stow away in the trunk of the family car. Believe it. Although that child may be tempted to name her children Trixie and Speed when she grows up - that is a risk.

Any child who has been raised by wolves - ok, that kid will not be given Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Not by me, anyway.


And then there's the weird resemblance to Peter Bagge's seminal slacker comic Hate. The curved posture of the characters, the loopy jaws and rubbery limbs, the gaping mouths and oversize hands - these are all stylistic elements shared by Peter Bagge, but then again, a lot of indie comic book artists draw like that. However, when it comes to amoral, opportunistic, and lazy protagonists in the comic book/graphic novel world? Hate's hero, Buddy Bradley, immediately springs to mind. Greg could easily be a pre-teen Buddy. The fact that Greg's baby brother calls him "Bubby" just cements the deal, in my mind.


Lawn Boyby Gary Paulsen

Schooled by Gordon Korman

If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period by Gennifer Choldenko

The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff

Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf: A Year Told Through Stuff by Jennifer Holm

The Homework Machine by Dan Gutman

Toby Wheeler: Eighth-Grade Benchwarmer by Thatcher Heldring

The True Meaning of Smekdayby Adam Rex

The Stink books by Megan McDonald

The Underwhere Series by Bruce Hale.

books by Jack Gantos

books by Gina Gershon

the work of Andrew Clements


Lisa C. said...

I'm so glad to finally read that someone else had the same reaction to Diary of a Wimpy Kid as I did. I definitely see the book's appeal, and I had a fun time reading it, but I kept thinking, "Why does Greg never, ever get his comeuppance?" In the face of all the glowing reviews from kids and adults, it really did make me feel like a persnickety old woman. :-)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Soundtrack said...

About 30 of us adults went and saw the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid Movie" and loved it. This was not only an extremely close to the book adaptation (job well done), but the story is timeless and repetitive to each generation of kids that survive this very painful experience called "middle school". It was relocatable and "a-kin" to all of our experiences of the time including middle school, social life, relationships, and family.