Title: Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Author: Jeff Kinney
Age Category: 9 to 12 +
Genre: Comic Juvenile Fiction
With the March 19th release date of the movie based on Diary of a Wimpy Kid fast approaching, I thought I would write a review of this madly popular book. Although it was first published in 2007, it remains on the New York Times Bestseller List (for children’s series books) and has been there for 57 weeks (!). In this review I will take a somewhat contrarian view of the book: I do not like it as much as it seems most everyone else does. “Why,” you ask? Read on fair reader.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Summary
Diary of a Wimpy Kid is the first in a growing series by Jeff Kinney. In the book we get collected episodes from a year in the tragicomic life of the book’s protagonist—Greg Heffley—presented in journal form (Heffley: “First of all, let me get something straight: This is a JOURNAL, not a diary”). The book is driven forward not by an unfolding plot line per se, but rather by its sequential format. A hand-written type face, printed on lined paper (as in a journal), is mixed with illustrative cartoons on each page.
Heffley is a prepubescent middle-schooler who is generally dissatisfied with his lot in life: he is stuck between a spoiled younger brother and an older brother who regularly victimizes him with pranks; he is surrounded by “morons” at school, including, seemingly, his socially oblivious “best friend” Rowley; he is not popular; his parents are clueless; and his passion for violent video games is frustrated at every turn.
Subjective Appeal: Genuinely Hilarious
As is probably already evident from this minimal description, the soul of this juvenile fiction book—and what I take to be its central subjective appeal—is a particularly boyish brand of pessimistic humor. Think Beavis and Butthead with the volume turned down slightly. Throughout the book, I was either howling at Heffley’s scathing observations on middle school, snickering at the scope of his self-delusion, cackling at his crudeness, or laughing at his low regard for those around him.
For example, near the beginning of the book, Heffley sums up middle school with the following quip: “Let me just say for the record that I think middle school 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 then they wonder why bullying is such a big problem in middle school” (p. 3). Tweens will find much to relate to and laugh at in this juvenile fiction book; I am not surprised it is so popular.
Developmental Value: Horrible Attitudes
Now the contrarian part: despite being genuinely funny, the book is very thin on developmental value. Or, more precisely, I think the book may well be developmentally detrimental. The central problem is that Kinney has us laughing at—and so wanting more of, and implicitly approving of—the mean things Heffley says and does, and his deluded self-serving attitudes.
For example, when the skinny Heffley realizes he doesn’t stand a chance in wrestling class, he rigs up a makeshift bench press and invites Rowley over to be his weight-lifting spotter. He makes Rowley go first—to see if he’s as committed to “bulking up” as Heffley is—and then proceeds to leave Rowley stuck for a while under the barbell, to help him “get serious about working out.” When Rowley goes home, with his feelings (if not his body) clearly hurt, Heffley concludes (without having lifted the barbell a single time himself!) that Rowley is letting him down, and that Rowley is just not as dedicated to lifting as he is.
Now, of course, I laughed at this (I’m no saint), but the question is, should I laugh at it? More importantly, should tweens—whose moral character is in relatively early stages of formation—laugh at it? My worry here is that the book just reinforces, and subtly leads us to approve of, a certain self-centered negativity that ought to be purged of pre-teens, not anchored all the more deeply via repeated and pleasurable reinforcement.
Okay, okay, I hear the objections already: “Isn’t this just puritanical paranoia? What’s wrong with a little frivolous fun? Couldn’t the book just be like junk food, i.e., okay once in while but not as one’s steady diet?” Reply: there is nothing wrong with frivolous fun. The problem is, reading children’s books like this isn’t frivolous fun. Think of it this way: as a parent, would you like your son to be best friends with Greg Heffley? My answer is clearly, “No.” Why? Because our friends influence who we become, the choices we make, the attitudes we take—in short, our character—and I do not want my kids to have Heffley’s character. And I don’t think it is a reach to say that the characters in books we enjoy become our friends for a season—and perhaps for a long and influential season if the book is one in a series. (Hence the disanalogy with junk food: if you buy this juvenile fiction book for your kids, they will “eat” it all the time.)
For example, my wife and I have been reading the Harry Potter juvenile fiction series aloud to each other for the past seven months (I know, I know…geek alert!), and when we miss a few days we actually begin to miss Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the central characters. Indeed, I know people who have become more emotionally attached to fictional characters than they are to the real people in their lives. I will have more to say about this connection between story and character development in a future article, but for now suffice to say that I think fictional characters can exert a great deal of influence over our character, particularly if we identify with them and enjoy them.
Now, to be fair, Heffley is rarely outright rewarded for his attitudes and actions (though the reader is, in spades). Moreover, I think Kinney’s portrayal of Heffley is meant to have us see through Heffley’s negative middle-school bluster to glimmers of a decent kid. For example, the title of the book alone tells us that we are not to take Heffley at face value. Despite Heffley’s protestations to the contrary, the title states that this IS a diary, and that he IS a wimpy kid (he likes home economics class for crying out loud!). Moreover, it seems to be Kinney’s intent that we sometimes see Heffley produce good things—e.g., he helps his little brother despite having a bad attitude about it, and he stumbles into giving Rowley a great Christmas present.
The problem is, producing good results despite horrible attitudes and intentions is not an ethic worth teaching; rather it is some twisted brand of moral consequentialism. Heffley’s stinky attitude, and his frequently stinky actions, far outweigh his accidental goodness. I do not demand of my fictional characters that they be morally flawless: my beloved Harry, Ron, and Hermione, main characters in the Harry Potter juvenile fiction series, clearly misbehave frequently. Indeed, we would never identify with fictional characters if they were perfect, since we aren’t perfect. However, with Heffley the balance just tips too far toward negativity and badness for me to recommend Diary of a Wimpy Kid. This book will make kids go backwards.
Final objection: “This book can help non-readers—particularly boys—to become readers.” While I agree that non-readers may well read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the question is, what exactly does that accomplish? I’m skeptical that such a book is going to help any child graduate to literature that is actually worth reading. By my lights, this book is no better than a funny but corrosive TV show in that respect (though it is considerably more creative than most TV shows). If we want to help non-readers to become readers—an extremely worthwhile goal—we need to do better than Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
In sum, I do not recommend Diary of a Wimpy Kid; you will not find this book in our Children’s Books and Reviews online bookstore. I’ll leave it to you to imagine my advice about the movie. =) For a positive review of the juvenile fiction book Diary of a Wimpy Kid, click here.
Have you read Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Think differently about it than I do? Let’s discuss it in the comments!