The kids, I’m sorry to report, are getting sharper all the time. Did you know that Holden Caulfield is now in middle school? That’s right: no longer cadging drinks or wrestling with pimps in fleapit Manhattan hotel rooms, the arch-diagnostician of adult bullshit is currently trick-or-treating and going out for ice cream with his mother. His name isn’t Holden anymore—it’s Greg. But his mood, that current of fretful optimism alternating with a cavernous disenchantment, is more or less unchanged: “I don’t know if this makes me a bad person or whatever, but it’s hard for me to get interested in other people’s vacations.” Or: “I’ll be famous one day, but for now I’m stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons.”
Greg Heffley, underdeveloped narrator of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Jeff Kinney’s mega-selling “novel in cartoons,” wears a nearly permanent frown. At least, it would be a frown, if he had eyebrows: Kinney draws his characters like emoticons, with dots for eyes, U-shaped noses, and downturned-bracket mouths. (Rodrick, Greg’s incipiently delinquent heavy-metal older brother, flexes a set of fierce and hyphen-like eyebrows.) The book opens with a twang of Salingerean surliness: “This [the diary] was MOM’s idea,” declares Greg. “But if she thinks I’m going to write down my ‘feelings’ in here or whatever, she’s crazy. So just don’t expect me to be all ‘Dear Diary’ this and ‘Dear Diary’ that.”
And all that kind of crap, we hear the original Holden adding. Greg doesn’t use the word crap, because Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the movie adaptation of which was released in March) is a book for children. Quite a range of children, actually: 12-year-olds read it, but so do a few 7-year-olds I know. For this crowd, the Diary is Dirty Realism—no dragons, no dying Dumbledores, just the bully in the hallway, the substitute teacher, and a strange bit of playground voodoo called the Cheese Touch. In Rodrick Rules, the second volume in the series, Greg dodges swimming practice by hiding out in the bathroom. But it’s cold in there, in just your bathing suit, so he does the sensible thing: he mummifies himself in toilet paper. (The accompanying cartoon here is especially abject.) His folks are interesting too. Mrs. Heffley, enigmatic behind the twin zeroes of her spectacles, is a shrewd dispenser of domestic justice, while Mr. H (a Civil War nut) tends to do his parenting in lunges of impetuous dad-ness. The Diary’s handwritten font and the deadpan eloquence of the drawings—and the sheer amount of white space on the page—have also made it, in the words of the School Library Journal, “a big hit with reluctant readers.” An enviable constituency for an author to have won, the reluctant readers. Not even Dan Brown can lay claim to many of those.
It’s not just the font and the cartoons, of course. And it’s more than a counter-reaction, a market correction, to the Harry Potter/Percy Jackson axis of piffle. Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its three sequel volumes are droll, coolly experimental, and quite clearly—as far as the kids are concerned—on the money. The cartoons are in a continual and rather sophisticated dialogue with the text, answering, amplifying, or ironizing it, and it’s amazing how much funniness Kinney can inject into his spare little images: I particularly recommend the portrait of Greg’s French pen pal, Mamadou Montpierre, in Rodrick Rules. Deeper and truer than all this, though, is the humiliation—the helpless blushing or glowering of the preteen, as an airborne snigger pursues him down the hallways like a heat-seeking missile. Greg’s best friend, Rowley—an innocent, a sort of holy fool, with hair-trigger weepiness and a panting, never-closed mouth—is a constant mortification to him, as are his parents, his two brothers, his body …