Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Series) by Jeff Kinney


Meh.

That is my initial to response to this hugely popular children's series. I don't know what I was expecting, but, certainly, a little more. . . something. More humor? Better characters? This book left me mildly irritated at best.

Lately it seems like I can't escape this book. On a recent trip, my 12-year-old daughter bought the third book in this series and was laughing hysterically on the plane ride home (while I was engrossed in Dear Enemy). And this week when I volunteered at the school book fair, kids were buying the three volumes left and right, so I knew it was time to break down and try it. I started with the first book, then read the second and third in quick succession. It did not improve.

The plot in a nutshell: Middle-schooler Greg records his thoughts about life as wimpy middle-schooler and his home life as an under-appreciated middle child in a journal with cartoons. The cartoons are clever, sort of sophisticated stick figures, but not as witty as Fox Trot or as endearing as Calvin & Hobbes. The big turnoff for me is Greg's character -- the back of the book describes him as an "unlikely hero" but I found nothing heroic about him. He's really selfish, self-centered, and spends all his time trying to get out of homework, housework, or any kind of responsibility. He won't commit to any sports or hobbies other than video games. He only has one friend, Rowley, and he's really mean to him and is constantly taking advantage of him. I get the impression they're only friends because Rowley is somebody he can push around. I found the book pretty mean-spirited and there wasn't a single character I liked. There were only a couple of times through the three-volume series that I even snickered.

Since this book doesn't appeal to me in the least, I decided to consult my daughter. According to her, this book is funny because Greg does what she fantasizes about but would never do, like completing a four page paper by just typing four sentences in the biggest possible font, or not doing laundry for an entire year. Well, I guess it's good to know my daughter would never actually do these things.

This brought up another point with me: obviously, I'm NOT the target audience for this book, so, really, is it fair for an adult to critique a book meant for a child? Of course I can't appreciate this book the same way a ten-year-old would. I'm not a big fan of science fiction or sports books, so I can't see myself evaluating those either. But I suppose we can't have children evaluating all the children's books, or a lot of adult book reviewers who would be out a job.

I can see how this book would be great to get reluctant readers interested in reading, especially boys (though lots of girls like Wimpy Kid also). That's a big topic with librarians -- basically, just get them to read something. Then, hopefully you can get the kids to move to something a little more challenging. Maybe these books are a step up from Captain Underpants and the Goosebumps series. I just kept thinking there are lots of clever, funny books that aren't too hard. I love the Time Warp series by Jon Sciezska, and pretty much everything by Daniel Manus Pinkwater.

While I was reading this series, I couldn't help thinking about another book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It's also in diary form, with cartoon illustrations, and it is so wonderful on so many levels, but it's definitely for an older audience. It's one of the best YA books I've ever read. Another hilarious teen book in diary form is The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, and its sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, by Sue Townshend. The books are set in London and were published in the 1980s, but I reread them recently and they really have stood the test of time. They are laugh-out loud funny more than 20 years later.

I hope I don't sound like a literary snob (as you can see from my list of completed books, I read the entire Sookie Stackhouse series this summer!) I'm not saying kids should be expected to sit around reading only Newbery award winners and classics. The Wimpy Kid series is just the literary equivalent of a potato chip. Hopefully, the children who love these will move on to something a little more filling.

7 comments:

  1. I actually can't stand the idea of these books. I've heard about them (my 8-year-old cousin loves them) but don't want my boys reading them. There are so many other good books out there and my kids aren't reluctant readers, so we'll just stay away from the nasty humor in here. Just like we avoid Junie B. Idiot and Spongebob.

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  2. There's nothing really offensive in them, but I can definitely see a comparison to Junie B. I know some people hate her but I really think she's funny. And at least she seems to learn some lessons, and they're not mean-spirited. There are a lot of good characters in Junie B.-- I especially like her relationship with her grandfather. But she's definitely NOT a role model.

    However, I do remember reading them aloud to the girls and using it as a teachable moment, i.e., don't be like Junie. And again, if you get get reluctant readers hooked, hopefully they'll move on to something better. Junie B. was the first chapter book Gabriela read all by herself. She read it all in one sitting and was so proud of herself, I'll never forget it.

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  3. I allowed the boys to read Junie books until Ambrose started using her excuses at school. "My body made me do it." That's when Junie got the ban in our house.

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  4. Whaaaat? His body made him do what? Or shouldn't I ask?

    I would say that merits a ban on Junie B., definitely.

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  5. Something stupid I can't even remember. Like his body made him run instead of walk, or hit someone, or something like that. Just another way of saying he wasn't controlling himself and he didn't want to blame himself for it. He blamed his body instead, as if he could do things without him. Grr.

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  6. Meh has been my impression of this from a distance. I suppose I am a book snob, but I'm trying to be more open, since when my son is ___ old, he'll probably want to read this too.

    I like how you compare it to potato chips. Just don't let them eat potato chips every meal!!

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  7. Rebecca -- exactly. It's the literary equivalent of junk food. I try not to be a lit snob, but it really frustrated me when my kids spent hours this summer reading Fox Trot collections, or any book based on a TV character like Hannah Montana. Or the Disney Fairies series.

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