Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Consider the Source: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Posted By on Tue, Mar 16, 2010 at 7:31 PM


The title Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a little misleading. True, rising middle-schooler Greg Heffley is unathletic and small for his age, but Jeff Kinney's bestselling book spends relatively little time focusing on his wimp factor. Even "Diary" part isn't ideal, since Greg declares, on the first page, that the word "diary" is for sissies and that he's recording his activities in a journal. Given Greg's self-centered behavior, perhaps Chronicles of a Lazy Kid or Annals of a Sneaky Kid could would be more appropriate.

Friday's release of the film adaptation of Diary of a Wimpy Kid (from the director of -- uh-oh -- Hotel for Dogs) inspired me to read Kinney's "novel in cartoons," which originated on the educational web site FunBrain. Written on lined noteb00k-style paper with illustrations on nearly every page, Diary of a Wimpy Kid straddled the line between picture book and graphic novel. Kinney's simplistic cartooning - a notch or two above stick figures - provides a whimsical counterpoint to Greg's grumpy, deadpan candor. Currently I'm reading the third book in the hilarious series, although the humor does not lie where one might expect to find it.

With his round head, sprig of hair and sad-sack episodes at home and school, Greg Heffley initially seems like an older, more contemporary version of Good Ol' Charlie Brown, whose failures always engender empathetic clucks along the lines of "Oh Charlie Brown, will you never win?" Due to his "wimpiness," Greg suffers from his share of bullying, but the author almost never milks his predicaments for sympathy. Greg turns out to be an exception to the typical child-age protagonist who rises over unjust persecution to bask in righteous triumphs. At times, he's refreshingly jerky, conniving and not particularly motivated to try hard. Early in the book he remarks:

Most kids wake up early on Saturday to watch cartoons or whatever, but not me. The only reason I get out of bed at all on weekends is because eventually, I can't stand the taste of my own breath anymore.

The accompanying illustration shows Greg making "smack smack" noises with his mouth as the sun shines in his bedroom window. Greg's half-assedness provides a running joke. At one point he hits on a scheme to raise money by setting up an elaborate basement haunted house: "With LIVE Sharks!" blare his neighborhood flyers. The finished product features little but a "Hall of Screams," a bed under which visitors crouch while Greg and a pal shriek at them.

Greg exploits his friend and sidekick Rowley at every possible opportunity. He doesn't even seem to particularly like Rowley, and comments, "Rowley is technically my best friend, but that is definitely subject to change." Kinney draws Rowley with a perpetually gaping  mouth, suggesting that Rowley mauy be too dim to perceive the times that Greg takes advantage of him. In the crux of the book, Greg and Rowley work as crossing guards, and Rowley gets punished for some of Greg's mischief. Greg does some soul-searching about whether to do the right thing and take the blame until, "I decided that the right thing to do was just to let Rowley take one for the team this time around." The next page shows Greg unhelpfully declaring, "I guess this has been a learning experience for BOTH of us!" while Rowley gapes unhappily.

Thankfully, Greg gets a chance to redeem himself before the book is out. Overall, Greg's selfish choices eventually backfire on him, so we don't feel guilty for laughing at his misfortunes. You almost want to take him aside and tell him that if she showed more sensitivity to other people, he just might attain some of the popularity that eludes him. Maintaining a resolutely unromanticized view of childhood, Diary of a Wimpy Kid's misadventures and narrative voice prove surprisingly reminiscent of the exploits of little Ralphie in A Christmas Story, only without the hugs.

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