This years World Book Day witnessed the crowning of a new literary hero when Blue Peter viewers voted the Diary of a Wimpy Kid to be the best book of the decade. The online vote to acknowledge the most successful books of the past ten years offered a choice of 10 shortlisted novels drawn from the bestseller lists for 5-11 year olds, allowing each author only one title each. (For those that are interested, the books that were on the shortlist were: Alex Rider Mission 3: Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz; Candyfloss by Jaqueline Wilson; Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney; Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix by J. K. Rowling; Horrid Henry and the Football Fiend by Francesca Simon; Mr Stink by David Walliams; Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo; The Series of Unfortunate Events: Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket; Theodore Boone by John Grisham; Young Bond: Silverfin – A James Bond Adventure by Charlie Higson.) Five of the books on the shortlist have feature film versions, which arguably might have skewed the choice of voters, but despite that I would still argue that the Diary of a Wimpy Kid won through largely because of one major factor – those that voted are all wimpy kids at heart.
The fact that children would be the ones to read and popularise the Wimpy Kid series came as an initial surprise to the series creator, Jeff Kinney, however. In an interview with the BBC last May, prior to the release of the second film in the series, the author explained how he had originally envisaged the series being produced as one large book for adults. This is because his creation for him was not an up-to-date snapshot of what it means to be a child, but a nostalgic reflection of childhood based upon his own experiences.
I was first directed towards reading the books last summer by an enthusiastic eleven year old boy, the main targeted demographic for the series now in print. After devouring the first book I quickly purchased the remainder of the series as, just as the boy who recommended it to me, I found it such an exciting read – recognising the nostalgic aspects of the story whilst enjoying its relevance to (what I understand of) modern childhood. I am not alone as an adult fan however, as a quick glance at list of followers of Wimpy Kids Facebook page (yes, there is such a thing!) attests. There we are, all standing together with the child readers, united in our understanding of what it means to be the unpopular one at school, struggling to raise our place in the society into which we are forced to belong.
Billed as a “novel in cartoons”, the series is written in a handwritten font with the story supplemented by, and partially told, in line drawn pictures on each page. This format has resulted in it having an easy to read style, and together with it’s farcical, yet recognisable, comedy the series has been credited with re-engaging reluctant (boy!) readers both in the States and over here. This has also triggered my academic interest in the series (sometimes I love our subject for the fact that it allows me to study books like this in ernest!), as the nature of children’s engagement with novels bears a hefty weight upon my research. The series is largely reliant on its hefty gag ratio, lacking any real sense of emotional depth – this is not harsh criticism, as Jeff Kinney himself raised it as an issue when the film adaptations were in conception – yet its superficiality (Greg, the anti-hero of the series is primarily a cartoon, not a literary, character) still affords reflection on the recognisability of its characters and their actions and experiences. Every school has its own version of the ‘cheese touch’ – if you didn’t/don’t know about it then you were/are either very lucky or alternatively you missed out on some incredibly cruel childhood laughs (usually at the expense of others).
Jeff Kinney is not swayed by the success of his creation however, choosing not to live the continuous publicity junket of the modern children’s author but to instead remain at his dayjob at Pearson as an online game developer and designer. This fact is acknowledged proudly in the end pages of the novels – a recognition that no matter how good the going gets, you can never truly escape your wimpy kid status. A recognition that being ‘normal’ can sometimes be a lot more fun!