Fuse #8

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Review of the Day: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams Books for Young Readers). $12.95

The world has not yet invented a method of finding the best webcomics currently available on the Internet for kids. So basically, for every twenty low-quality/poorly thought out amalgamations of crap, you get one bright shining star. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” the webcomic, was one such star. The only conclusion I can really draw at this point is that somebody at Abrams is a friggin’ genius for plucking the comic up and making it into a book. Now normally I don’t like to separate titles into “girl books” and “boy books”, but Jeff Kinney has written such a marvelous “boy book” that for every parent that walks in the door of my library I’m going to be cramming this title into their arms. Heck, I’ll slip it into their purses if I have to. This book is going to reach its intended audience whether I have to wrestle skeptical parents to the floor with it clamped firmly in my teeth. Want to transfer your Captain Underpants lovers from graphic novels to fiction? This book won’t do that. It’s just something that every single person will get a kick out of.

First things first. Boys do not have diaries. Girls have diaries. Let’s get that straight cause things could get messy if we don’t. Basically, what we have here are the gathered thoughts and memories of Greg Haffley. Greg’s got a pretty average life, all things considered. His older brother is a jerk, his younger brother annoying, his best friend a doofus, and his parents perfect dweebs. To top it all off, Greg’s been thrown into his first year of middle school and things are really weird. Suddenly friendships are shifting and Greg’s not sure who he wants to be. Add in some haunted houses, wrestling, downhill games involving bodily injury, forbidden cheese, and basic family fears and you’ve got yourself one heckuva debut.

I should specify that in spite of the fact that this book is based on a webcomic, it’s not a graphic novel. Not really. Comic illustrations appear on every single page and complement the storytelling, but this is really more a (what’s the term again?) illustrated novel. What this appears to be, more than anything else, is a notebook that’s been written in by hand with the occasional cartoony illustration here and there for effect. It never breaks up into panels or long illustrated periods. There are just tasty little comic treats on each and every page.

Now the term “laugh-out-loud funny” is not to be bandied about. When I say that something is “laugh-out-loud funny” I don’t want to be talking titters, mild chuckles, or undersized, underfed guffaws. I want to describe something so amusing that you think about it later and start laughing in an embarrassing manner on the subway. Jeff Kinney gave me that more than once. There was the moment when Greg’s trying to get out of performing as an apple-throwing tree in his school’s production of, “The Wizard of Oz.” He thinks that maybe if he screws up what he has to say, that might be his out. “But when you only have one word to say, it’s really hard to mess up your lines.” The next thing we know, “Dorothy” has picked an apple and Greg’s trying out a tentative, “Owwwchhh?” Oh! And the form thank you letters! Greg figures out that he says basically the same thing to all his relatives. So he just cranks out a form letter and fills in the details. This works great until he gets to something like, “Dear AUNT LORETTA, Thank you so much for the awesome PANTS! How did you now I wanted that for Christmas? I love the way the PANTS looks on my LEGS! All my friends will be so jealous that I have my very own PANTS.” I think I was laughing over this for a good three hours after I read it.

There’s something particularly charming about Kinney’s illustration/cartoons too. The lines are incredibly clean and precise, even as they are showing some pretty raucous stuff. Kinney’s grasp on visual gags is without comparison. At one point Greg happens to mention that if you “mess up in front of Dad” (i.e. kick over your little brother’s toys maliciously) he’ll throw whatever he has in his hands at you. We then see two shots of Greg misbehaving. The first is labeled, “GOOD TIME TO SCREW UP:” and shows him kicking over some blocks while his dad is holding the newspaper. The second reads, “BAD TIME TO SCREW UP:” and shows him doing it while his dad is cementing together a brick wall. Comedy gold, people! The comics are drawn over lined paper, making the whole enterprise really feel as if you’re poring through someone else’s journal.

And for all that, the writing’s not too shabby. When Greg talks about week-ends he says, “The only reason I get out of bed at all on weekends is because eventually, I can’t stand the taste of my own breath anymore.” Been there. Tasted that. Kinney’s able to point out all kinds of funny school details we adults may have forgotten, but that kids will recognize instantly. For example, why should you tell kids that “It’s great to be you,” when a lot of people really should think about changing themselves? We see two bullies shoving some poor kid down at this point yelling, “It’s great to be me!,” you you have to concede the point. I mean, Kinney remembers what it was like to roll a really big snowball and then see that you were ripping up the grass on your lawn in the process. No one remembers that! Characters are also lovingly delineated, not only in words, but in their little comic illustrations. Take as your example the character of Greg's fellow student and neighbor Fregley. Fregley is weird. So how would you, as the writer/cartoonist, convey this? You might want to have him say things like, “Wanna see my secret freckle?". You might draw him with a mouth wider than his head. You might have him stabbing kites in his front yard, shirtless. For a start, anyway. Every character in this book feels real. Even Greg’s annoying, practically mute, little brother.

And so much more. Such as the name of Greg’s older brother’s band. Loaded Diaper, only it’s spelled “Loded Diper” with an umlaut over the “o”. Greg suspects his brother thinks that it really is spelled that way. And there are the small failures and triumphs of your average pre-adolescent. No one in their right mind would ever want to return to the days of Middle School, but if Jeff Kinney keeps churning out books like this one, I’ll follow him there any day of the week. This title has already been getting some pretty choice reviews here and there. Can I make a nomination for funniest children’s book of 2007? Consider it a necessary purchase.

On shelves April 1, 2007.

Notes on the Cover: Apparently (and I'm getting this through the author's blog so don't quote me) the hardcover version of this book is going to have, "cool special effects like fake Scotch tape." I don't know if that means that there will be fake shiny scotch tape or what, but it sounds neat. I am rather partial to the design of the book too. The cartoon character on the cover, who looks like he was drawn on notebook paper and then slapped on a leather (slightly scuffed) diary. It's nice. Makes it look as if the publisher really cared about the subject.

For Additional Info: The series originally ran as a webcomic on www.funbrain.com.

Other Blog Reviews: The Goddess of YA
The What the Font Forum (wherein the poster obsessed over the choice of handwritten font)

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10 Comments:

At 3:08 PM , Anonymous NixieKnox said...

See, I hate this. I get all excited about a book you review and then I go to buy it and it isn't released yet. Sigh.

 
At 5:10 PM , Blogger Elizabeth said...

Ah. But it's out April 1st! So very soon, no? Just half a month away.

 
At 5:19 PM , Blogger Christopher Trottier said...

Hey, I just wrote at length about Soviet children's books and I thought I'd ask you if there are any books of that era that are translated into English. And all told, what is there staying power? Have you read any yourself?

 
At 10:07 PM , Blogger Sarah Louise said...

This looks fun. I'll keep my eye out for it.

 
At 11:24 PM , Blogger chad said...

For those in New York area an can't wait till April 1st, Books of Wonder has copies on sale now.

Just sayin . . .

 
At 12:35 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Heeeyyy...

Could it be? Has Books of Wonder discovered that I exist? Could "Chad" be one of them? Oh goody goody goody goody! Maybe I'll start linking to you rather than Powell's in the future.

And Soviety children's books? God I love the range of comments I get sometimes. Haven't read any myself, but I am married to a Communist. No lie. I am actually looking at a bust of Lenin that's sitting on my speaker system as I write this. If I had a halfway decent digital camera I'd show you.

Anywho, I'll check out the link.

 
At 10:12 AM , Anonymous Jennifer said...

Of *COURSE* you should link to BOW! Powells is great but it's in Portland. Show some NYC pride! It's the best bookstore around.

 
At 12:40 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Ah. Small problem. BOW doesn't LET me link to them. Their website is funky and even if I do manage to find a title I need, the site "times out" when I link to it. I've not had much luck with Bank Street Bookstore. By deint of superior web skills, Powell's will remain my go-to book provider.

 
At 5:07 AM , Blogger Leather Diaries said...

Interesting!

Thanks for sharing.

 
At 3:42 PM , Anonymous Aaron Mead said...

While I agree that this is a funny book, I'm actually pretty worried about it as something that shapes the character of children. 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 self-serving attitudes. The question is, should tweens—whose moral character is in relatively early stages of formation—be laughing at these things? 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 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 book for your kids, they will “eat” it all the time.) Indeed, I know people who have become more emotionally attached to fictional characters than they are to the real people in their lives. So, while it is funny, I think we also need to consider whether it is good for children.


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.

 

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