Diary of a Wimpy Kid
A Novel in Cartoons

by Jeff Kinney

Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 9-13

Middle schooler morality

After reading a rather ambivalent review (from one of my favorite reviewers) of the 5th book in the Wimpy Kid series, I decided I had to find out for myself what all the fuss (and fame) is about.

After all, it had been seven years (I write this in 2011) since the Diary of a Wimpy Kid phenomenon launched with a popular web comic, four years since the publication of the best-selling book, and now there are movies as well.

Here's the first thing you should know. Greg Heffley is in middle school.

Greg and Rowley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Many teachers will tell you that middle school is when children are at their lowest moral ebb. Kids are at their most most callous and most self-involved. Self-conscious of their changing (or not changing) bodies to the extreme, empathy falls by the wayside in favor of a constant fear of embarrassment.

I've been there. I suspect you have too.

And in light of all this, Diary of a Wimpy Kid makes sense. It makes sense that this "novel in cartoons" (aptly described) of one boy's experience of an entire school year would achieve its climax with a single, minor act of bare minimum decency by its "hero."

Diarist Greg Heffley (who insists that this isn't a diary but rather a journal, because "diary" sounds a little too suspect and worthy of some bullying) endeavors to share a school year's worth of experience with us, covering home life and social life as well as what is presumably the 6th grade.

It's a minefield out there, but despite labeling himself "wimpy," Greg manages to lay just as many mines as he steps on - and a fair number of the ones he steps on happen to have been laid by Greg himself.

Diary ran counter to my expectations in that the title (and the tendency of fiction in general to frame its viewpoint characters nobly) led me to expect that I'd be reading about a generally good kid.

Not so much...at least not at this stage in his life. Greg actually manages to seem more conscienceless than the majority of his peers. But his desire to fit in and be perceived positively make his choices somewhat forgivable.

Most of the book reads like a study in borderline (but eminently humorous) sociopathy. The moments where Greg actually exhibits an awareness of the feelings of others stand out for their rareness. His regrets are most often of the "getting caught" variety.

Greg is by no means a popular kid, but that hasn't made him any more sensitive. Rather, he tends to make sure that poop runs downhill (to paraphrase a popular truism). He's drawn to kids less popular than himself, because he can bully them a bit, and he looks better standing next to them.

Now, I realize that nothing I'm saying is likely to make parents think, "I want to buy that uplifting book for MY child." But consider...

The world author Kinney depicts is quite familiar to children of a certain age. And so they're likely to get more out of Diary of a Wimpy Kid than Sidney, the Seventh Grade Saint.

(Don't Google it. I made it up.)

And there is that moment I mentioned where Greg exhibits relatively high character. When his kind-of best friend Rowley faces utter humiliation (largely Greg's fault, though that's never bothered him before), Greg steps up and takes the hit by claiming to have touched the corroded cheese on the basketball court. (Please don't ask me to explain. We'll be here all day!)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Normally I would have provided a plot summary by now, but Greg Heffley's journal really does read more like disparate diary entries than a full blown plot, though Kinney does manage to craft an effective ending that ties together a couple previously occurring events and show that the protagonist has managed a bit of growth, in spite of himself.

Greg Heffley might grow up to be a decent human being. Many middle schoolers do.

What's important to know is that Diary of a Wimpy Kid is big-time funny and features a kid who feels like a regular kid at an age at which we're not our best. Readers of that age - worried not at all about their mortal souls and obsessively about some label or event that they worry they'll never live down - are sure to identify.

Read more of Steve's book reviews.

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