Originally started as a web comic on Funbrain, where book one can still be read for free, and conceived as an adult nostalgia piece, Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a hugely popular series that has gotten kids, boys especially, reading. I almost didn't write this review because these books are so ubiquitous that I figured there were very few parents and kids who didn't know about them. However, after reading the first two in the series I thought that maybe I did have something of value to say about the series for those of you who are unfamiliar with it. *For an addendum to this review written after listening to an interview with Jeff Kinney in which he was asked some very pointed questions, see below. To listen to the interview before reading my review so that you can form an opinion of your own, click here.
The diary keeper of the title is Greg Heffley and he is on the verge of starting middle school, which, in his opinion is, "the dumbest idea ever invented. You got kids like me who haven't hit their growth spurt yet mixed in with these gorillas who need to shave twice a day. And they wonder why bullying is such a big problem in middle school." The diary, or JOURNAL, as Greg insists on calling it, was given to him by his mom and he is only writing in it for later when he is rich and famous and too busy to answer questions about his past. Greg has an older brother, Roderick, who is in high school and drives a van with his band's name painted on the side. The name of the band is Löded Diper, the correct spelling of which Greg is sure his brother is oblivious to. Roderick treats Greg pretty badly, which could be part of the reason he sees himself as a wimp. Roderick plays jokes on him constantly. Some are funny, moslty harmless jokes, like coming into Greg's room at 3 am (in the middle of the summer) dressed for school and telling Greg to hurry up and get ready for the first day of school. When his dad comes downstairs yelling at him for making so much noise at three in the morning as he eats his cereal, Greg gets the joke. Roderick covers his tracks and avoids punishment. There is definitely a trickle down effect going on as Greg repeats the jokes on his friend by default (as in, there is no one better around to play with), Rowley. Greg heads to Rowley's house to play video games whenever his dad makes him go outdoors to get exercise, despite the fact that Rowley's dad won't allow the boys to play games with fighting or violence in them. Greg finds a way around this rule by bringing his unacceptable games over to Rowley's hidden in the cases of his baby brother's educational games. Finally, there is Greg's baby brother Manny, who, to his deepest embarrassment, calls him "Bubby." Manny is both a burden Greg must tend to and a blabbermouth, telling their parents about some of Greg's transgressions.
There are some very funny, realistic parts of this book, like the whole story line with the "cheese touch," which involves an old piece of fossilized cheese on the blacktop of the playground that, when touched, gives you the "cheese touch" and ensures immediate ostracization for possessing said touch. Some of the events, though, can get a little uncomfortable and involve lying to adults and subjecting other kids to violence or frightening situations. So, of course, as a parent I have a different view of these kids and their antics than a young reader will. Greg is a character who makes his choices based on whatever is most convenient for him with little thought to others. Some of the plot points that caused me to cringe and have second thoughts about recommending this to younger kids are: The pay-per-view haunted house that Rowley and Greg set up. It turns out to be such a lame version of their original plan that they cut short the attraction after their first customer curls up in the fetal position and refuses to leave the "Hall of Screams." Then there is the time that Manny finds one of Roderick's contraband Heavy Metal magazines and brings a picture of a bikini-clad girl draped across the hood of a car for show and tell at preschool. Roderick's punishment is to answer in writing pointed questions posed by his mother regarding shame, being a better person and apologizing to all women for owning something of that nature. There is also the time when, disappointed with the Big Wheel Rowley gives him for Christmas, Greg finds a way to have fun with it by trying to bean Rowley in the head with a football as he rides by on it, causing him to crash and break his arm. Finally, there is the time when Greg takes Rowley's route on the safety patrol and chases a group of kindergartners with a worm on a stick, sending them screaming. Rowley is blamed for terrorizing the kids and Greg lets him take the fall. Greg loses his position on the safety patrol and Rowley's friendship (for a time) over that one. While I laughed and shared Greg's point of view once in a while, I was left with an uneasy feeling above all because of the humor at other people's expense that is a regular aspect of the book, as well as a continual disregard for others that exists in Greg and his brother Roderick. I think that these books are so widely popular, in part, because of the easy to read diary format, the cartoonish illustrations and the brightly colored covers. I think that this is also what attracts readers as young as seven or eight and what leads parents to believe that these books, about a seventh grader, are acceptable to give to a second or third grader. I have no doubt that there are younger readers who can consume this series without being aversely affected or acting out, however, because there is no moral presence in the books, I think that parents who read the books with their kids can provide that moral touchstone outside of the text by reading and talking to their kids about the stories.
I have to confess that I am a book snob. I sometimes shudder when I think about what I am required to place on the shelves and sell at the bookstore where I work. I am also somewhat reformed in my snobbery. Several years ago I volunteered as a reading coach at the elementary school my son was attending. Twice a week I went to second and fifth grade classrooms and read with a handful of kids, mostly boys. What I learned from working with those kids is that a book has intrinsic value if it inspires a child to pick it up and read it, regardless of the plot or content (within reason, of course.) I learned to appreciate Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants and even RL Stine's Goosebumps books. So, while I definitely value the way that Jeff Kinney and his books have inspired reluctant and non-readers to crack a spine on a book for a change, I do have one small reservation about these books. They remind me a bit of the television show The Simpsons, which has definite kid appeal in the character of Bart, but also plays on a very adult level, dropping in adult references and themes from time to time. Probably most kids don't pick up on it and it remains benign. But, seems like one thing to watch Bart Simpson misbehave and disregard others on television for twenty-one minutes at a time and a whole other thing to read about it over and over in a book series. Some kids pick up on this stuff, get ideas and do or say things that are inappropriate. Some don't. I am not in any way advocating censorship, however. Instead, I hope to provide parents with a useful tool for determining whether or not these books are well suited for their child. I have talked to some parents who have told me that reading Junie B Jones led to undesired behaviors in their kids and I suspect that the Wimpy Kid series could have the same effect on a small number of readers, especially the younger ones, as well, and I know that kids as young as third grade are reading this series.
Renaissance Learning, a company that produces computer based comprehension tests on children's books that schools use to monitor and encourage students' reading, rates the Wimpy Kid books at a 5th grade reading level. The Lexile framework for reading, which is used more by academics, ranks the third book in the series at a 970L. According to Lexile, The Last Straw is comparable with Philip Pullman's book The Golden Compass, a very complex book with foreign names and words, which Renaissance Learning ranks as a 7th grade reading level book. Confusing as this is, I want to make the point that, while many third graders and younger are reading this series, they are, in most cases, probably too young for it, whether due to maturity or ability. I think young kids are drawn in by the very funny, entertaining comic illustrations and jokes and gags in the books and end up reading about a kid who is in middle school and has a teenage brother who throws parties while their parents are out of town.
In a perfect world of books, reluctant readers would be drawn to a series with more redeeming qualities and less general meanness than the Wimpy Kid book. But, in a perfect world of books everyone would grow into adults who like to read Shakespeare, Jhumpa Lahiri, Henry James and Walt Whitman. Nothing is perfect, reading is important and all things require some give and take since we are all different with different tastes. Diary of a Wimpy Kid certainly isn't the worst book on the shelf by any means. I just think it needs to be read with a sense of distance on the part of the reader and caution on the part of the parents. And, for all I know, maybe over the course of this series Greg develops the conscience and sense of responsibility we all hope our children will acquire as they mature. I have only read the first two books in the series. But, as a friend and co-worker said when we were discussing the possible merits of reading this book, "Why don't kids just read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?"
**Ok. Ok. I knew I was being a censorious adult when I wrote the review and I really, really didn't want to do anyone's thinking for them by spouting my opinion. As uncomfortable as I felt writing the review, after listening to this interview on the NPR radio show Here and Now, I stand by my word. I learned that Kinney originally wrote this on-line comic as a nostalgia piece for adults and that makes perfect sense to me when I reflect on the humor and content of the books. Kinney describes his main character as a "half-formed person," his moral code being "whatever is most convenient for him." Kinney defends this by saying that we were all a bit unsavory at this age and Greg is just being a kid. Kinney feels that his books are so popular with kids because readers can't "smell the adult behind the pen," meaning that the voice of authority, the moral adult, never arrives on the scene to set things right. Kinney says that all of the humor in the books comes from Greg's shortcomings, which is fair, but it seems like kids need, deserve even, to see Greg grow as a person. During the interview it was mentioned that a reviewer said that Greg Heffley is like what Larry David, writer for the Seinfeld television show and now writer and curmudgeonly, antisocial star of Curb Your Enthusiasm, must have been like as a child. That may be accurate, but adults watch and appreciate Larry David's show and understand the subtleties of the character and what he is losing by persisting in his attitude. I doubt that very few young readers can step back and look at Greg, after laughing at his misfortunes that arise because his "moral backbone is as thin as his stick-figure character," as interviewer Robin Young describes him, and think, "Ha ha. He's funny. Sure glad I'm not like him!" Instead, they most likely walk away from the books like Jeff Kinney's son did, thinking that there is nothing wrong with being like Greg. Kinney admitted that, when his mom when she invited him to go bike riding, his son responded with Greg's words, saying that he is more of an "indoor person." After revealing this, Kinney admitted that he might keep his books away from his six year old for a while.