CULTURE SCHLOCK — By Darren Garnick
February 14, 2008
Before I saw an in-store advertisement for his recent Barnes & Noble book signing, I was not familiar with Jeff Kinney’s work. That’s probably because I’m almost four times his typical reader’s age.
Kinney is the cartoonist who morphs himself into the brain of the average middle school boy, and through handwritten angst and crude doodles, chronicles a life of bully avoidance and the heartache of being grounded from video games.
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” his first “novel in cartoons,” soared to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List last year. As of Feb. 3, his freshly published sequel, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules” was Number 8 on the USA TODAY Bestseller List – only four notches behind Stephen King, but 12 spots ahead of Danielle Steel.
His cartoons belong much more in the horror genre than romance. The world of skinny protagonist Greg Heffley, who goes to school “where undersized weaklings share the hallways with kids who are taller, meaner and already shaving,” doesn’t involve any puppy love.
In fact, Kinney deliberately draws all his girl characters with the same shaped heads (only the hairstyle changes) and bodies, while the boys come in all shapes and sizes. The reason: the befuddled Greg sees all girls as equally mysterious creatures and he doesn’t pay much attention to any of them.
At his Nashua book signing, however, the cartoonist’s throng of pre-teen groupies included a smattering of girls. And these are girls who actually have different sized heads and bodies.
Kinney says he’d guess his readership is about 40 percent female.
“Girls are bigger readers than boys, so there might be a law of averages at work here,” he explains. “But Greg is also not overly masculine, not overly sporty. Perhaps they think they can relate to him.”
When the 36-year-old Kinney was a kid, he was a huge fan of Judy Blume’s “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.” He didn’t keep a diary or classroom journal, but he now wishes he did and encourages boys to write down their feelings — but not in a touchy-feely kind of way.
Part of the ‘Wimp’ character’s appeal is that he’s far from being an angel. In his school election for class treasurer, for example, Greg makes posters falsely accusing his opponent of having head lice. “Do you really want him touching YOUR money?” the campaign ads ask.
Kinney’s alter-ego also ridicules self-esteem videos and the anti-smoking coloring contests they have in his health education class. Because of the heavy cynicism content, the author says he wants his sons, ages 2 and 5, to wait at least until they turn 13 before reading his books.
At the book signing, a reading specialist at Nashua’s Broad Street School told me that the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series is a huge hit with third and fourth graders and has provided an incentive for less advanced readers to try harder.
Of course, wimps can’t exist in a vacuum. In a twist on Eleanor Roosevelt’s declaration that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” wimpy kids can’t exist without the fear of being bullied. Kinney vividly recalls sitting in the top row of the gymnasium bleachers and watching his class bully methodically punch each kid down the line. When it was his turn to be pummeled, he was mercifully rescued by teacher intervention.
“I definitely felt terrorized in middle school, but I emerged relatively unscathed,” the author reveals, adding that he does not advocate fighting back. “I get lots of letters asking for advice about bullying. There’s no easy way out. I suggest that kids tell every adult they know about their situation.”
Kinney’s position totally contradicts The Brady Bunch Doctrine on bullying. If you recall, the lisping Cindy Brady was only rescued from the taunts of thuggish Buddy Hinton after her brother Peter courageously punched (the much larger) Hinton in the mouth. The lesson is a universal one and applies to both the school yard and the Middle East.
Then again, Kinney’s pacifism is about story preservation. If Greg Heffley strikes back and convinces the bullies to turn their swords into plowshares, the most dramatic source of tension would be gone. And Kinney’s headed into Harry Potter territory. He’s signed on with his publisher for a total of five “Wimpy Kid” books and there is even talk of a “Wimpy Kid” movie.
But beyond the huge financial windfall for this once struggling cartoonist (the book was a 10 year project), Kinney’s lasting legacy might be his influence on young boys to become writers.
“Start a journal,” he tells his fans. “It will give you a window into your own childhood when you become an adult — and will be one of your most valuable possessions.”
Darren Garnick’s “Culture Schlock” column runs Thursdays in Encore magazine. Feedback is welcomed at cultureschlock (at) gmail.com.