Thursday, October 11

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

by Jeff Kinney

It's good, I like it, it's just not a graphic novel.

That's right, you heard me. Not. A. Graphic. Novel.

I knew things were going to get sticky with this whole kidlit graphic novel thing and here we go. I know I'm going to come off sounding like a stuffy old dog fart at a cocktail party but I feel I need to get this out there.

This is the litmus test: If you remove the images from the graphic novel -- read the text straight through -- does it still make sense, is it still a coherent narrative? Conversely, if you remove the text and read only the pictures is the story still apparent? You can have a graphic novel without words, but a graphic novel that works without pictures is just an illustrated novel.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is an illustrated novel. Remove the illustrations and you have a jolly little middle grade reader. Remove the text and you have a collection of little comic images that occasionally can stand on their own but otherwise exist only to illustrate a part of the story that could have stood on its own.

I'm going to say this again, and I may say it a few more times throughout the review just to be clear: I liked this book.

Starting out its life as an online comic, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is exactly what it says, the diary of Greg Heffley, your average middle school boy who's a little further down on the food chain than most kids. He's got himself figured for around 52nd in the pecking order and he relates what it means to be that far along while trying to make his way through the various obstacles that face kids on the edge of puberty. Naturally bullies are a problem, but so are girls, his older brother, his younger brother, his parents, his friend's, his friend's parents, even a piece of cheese that has been out on the blacktop for over a year is troublesome. Working his way through the school year Greg attempts to find himself using the sort of tortured logic that often leads to disastrous results.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid trades in the same areas of subversive and slightly gross humor that children enjoy and parents wince at. When Greg applies to be the cartoonist for the newspaper (a particularly funny story thread with a very strong ring of truth to it) he manages to catch a glimpse of the work of his fellow aspirants that reveals their baser nature: insult and poop jokes abound. Kids naturally find this stuff funny because it is, and parents don't find it funny for the same reasons. The thing is, what kids respond to is the subversive nature of laughing at the things they know upset their parents.

Sadly, I know that this book has moments that teach kids what most adults would consider bad examples. Greg likes to play video games, something he is restricted from doing because he doesn't get enough exercise. So he goes over to his friend's house and plays his games there, splashing himself with water from a hose to pretend he's all sweaty from playing outside when he comes home. Bad enough in the example department, but worse is that his friend's dad checks out the Internet reviews of the games they play before they can play them, screening for violent content. When Greg gets the idea to put his violent game disks inside his baby brother's learning disks for screening and approval purposes the little light bulb goes off in kids heads. Presuming it hasn't already.

One element I saw actually duplicated in the home: the moron test, where the joke is that lower intelligence is linked to your hand size being equal to the size of your head. Naturally Greg's less-than-bright friend puts his had to his face for comparison and has his own hand used to slap his own face. The kind of prank I watched my girls practice on each other, their friends, and eventually me.

To those adults who think "Well! We just won't have any of THAT in our house!" I would strongly caution you to consider that when you attempt to remove this kind of influence from kids lives by removing the book you set them up for learning this sort of information on the streets. It also underscores why book censorship doesn't work -- the information is out there and you can't hide it from them by removing a book. Your little perfect prim and proper darlings are not the same when they are in school (I'm a former middle grade teacher, I know), and what they learn on the playground might astonish you. But, if they all read the same books, and they all know the jokes, then there's less of a chance for them to be sucked into the pratfalls.

(For people who use this logic to homeschool -- and I have heard this "logic" used -- that these sorts of things are precisely the reason they don't want their children in public schools, might I suggest that down the road your children will find themselves surrounded by these same children who, as adults, can spot the weakest link from a mile off. It may seem like rude and vicious playground games now, but they level the playing field in the long run and keep kids sharp for when they are in the big, wide world and have to keep an eye out for the sharks; those kids who have been sheltered from these realities find themselves easy chum for sharks. Don't get me started about how this applies to isolationist political dogma.)

This book hardly needs any adult help -- the kids know it's out there. The word of mouth is strong and where it isn't all a child need to see is the title and they're sold. If they come across the greatly expanded online version they will see that this is the first of five books that have been and continue to be chronicled on the Internet. Ignore the Wimpy Kid now at your own peril.

But whatever you do, don't call it a graphic novel.


Sarah Stevenson said...

Thanks, David--this is helpful, since it was just nominated for the Cybils in GNs and I wasn't sure if it belonged there. Now I know it should be moved to another category! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

David, I saw Jeff speak this weekend at the Southern Festival of Books (alongside Jack Gantos, whom I adore). Kinney actually set out to write this for adults; he envisioned it being in the Humor section of the adult section of a book store.

Just a little fun fact there that I learned this weekend . . . has no bearing on the book. Haven't read it myself yet.