Our local independent bookstore opened extra early on the morning of Oct. 12 to sell copies of the insanely anticipated fourth book in Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, this one titled Dog Days. The last time I remember that bookstore being overrun with hordes of kids yelping for a book was when the final Harry Potter novel came out. It was midnight when the Potter boxes were broken open, and the kids were dressed as macabre creatures from Hogwarts.
The atmosphere surrounding the arrival of Kinney's latest book was appropriately sprightlier: The bookstore opened at dawn and distributed donuts. Like the Potter series, Kinney's books are aimed at a middle-school audience, but they translate well to older readers. Unlike the Potter series, Kinney's books are funny — the kind of funny where you have to stop reading every so often because you're laughing so hard that tears and snot are running down your face, and you feel like maybe you'll even throw up. How's that for an erudite critical endorsement?
I started reading Kinney at the command of my 11-year-old daughter. One of the things she hates most in the world is when adults loom over her and ask, "So, are you a big reader like your mother?"
She's not. She's much more socially well-adjusted than I am and doesn't seek out quiet corners where she can seal herself off with a book far from the madding crowd. She soured on the Potter saga about halfway through when the story lines got grislier. Kinney, however, is just her ticket. Not only is his series hero, Greg Heffley, a middle-school everyman, forever waiting for his growth spurt as he's surrounded by "gorilla" classmates "who need to shave twice a day," but the books themselves are stories in cartoon form, otherwise known as graphic novels.
This is a literary genre whose attractions, I confess, I've been immune to until I began reading the Wimpy Kid books. Because the conceit of the series is that the books are journals that Greg himself is keeping, the cartoons here are strictly stick figure. But what a range of middle-school misery Kinney wrings out of a few lines — the bend of Greg's back under a jumbotron-sized book bag; the quaking of his scrawny body as he's perched on the edge of the freezing school pool, waiting for the swim meet whistle to blow and seal his doom.
The cartoons don't merely illustrate the story, they advance it and split it off into a hundred digressive tributaries, working like the footnotes in Eliot's Waste Land.
Admittedly, maybe I'm reaching for a high-art analogy because I'm still a little uncomfortable about my kid preferring to read what amounts to a hardcover comic book series over, say, Little Women. But Kinney has anticipated this kind of helicopter-parent squeamishness. In Dog Days, Greg Heffley's relentlessly chirpy mom starts a summer reading club. At the first meeting, the other boys report on the books they've brought, among them: Sudoku Insanity and X-Treme Pop-Up Sharks.
Greg's mom says these books aren't "real" literature and insists that the club is going to have to start with the "classics." Greg says that he's "not really sure what makes a book a 'classic,' " but he thinks "it has to be at least fifty years old and some person or animal has to die at the end." He says these are the types of books "teachers are always pushing us to read at school," and that if you read a classic in your free time, the teachers "reward you with a sticker of a hamburger or something like that."
Kinney has an ear — and eye — for the middle school milieu. (Read an excerpt describing Greg's disastrous attempt at starting a lawn-mowing service.) For adult readers, he vividly brings back the oceanic feeling of helplessness that swamps most of us at that age when you're not in control of your weirdly changing body, or even what you're allowed to eat or read.
Last spring, in the delirious company of my daughter and two of her middle-school guy friends, I heard Kinney speak at the University of Maryland. It was one of the best author talks I've ever attended. Kinney had the whole cavernous auditorium — adults, kids — roaring with laughter. And then he stuck around to sign books: not just the books that were on sale, but all the books of his that the hundreds of kids had brought with them. Kinney "gets" the powerlessness of late childhood; in his appearance that day and throughout his ongoing series, he's made all the "wimpy kids" out there know that they're in good company.