Friday, November 20, 2009

jeff kinney, dog days #4 diary of a wimpy kid

If you’re not a tween, the parent of a tween, or a person who sells to/teaches/otherwise interacts with tweens, then you may have missed the global frenzy that is the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Dog Days is the fourth (or fourth-and-a-half) book in the series, which has stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List for 41 weeks as of the start of this month. And frankly, I’m not surprised.

I picked up book one at the start of this year, wondering what all the fuss is about. The books are the diaries of seventh grader Greg Heffley, and are told through both the written word and a heavy amount of simple illustration. (The cover of the book gives you a fair indication.) Greg has an embarrassing mother, a father who wants him to man up, a little brother who is unfairly doted upon and a big brother who never gets in trouble for tormenting Greg. So far so clichéd, right? Well, yes and no. Greg suffers from being completely deluded about his own intelligence and sex appeal, and spends most of the books chasing girls and trying to make it rich while playing as many video games as possible. Somehow, he’s freaking hilarious. I sped through book one, followed it with the next two and then the Do-It-Yourself book, which had lots of spaces to fill out your own diary, draw your own pictures, think up practical jokes, and so on. It was also a third new material, and just as funny as the rest of the books. Also, they’ve all been un-Americanned, so to speak, and Mom is now Mum, and so on.

Greg’s best friend is the dopey Rowley, who is coerced by Greg (who is basically a bully) into participating in his schemes. In this book, Greg decides to make it rich by starting a gardening company and sends out fliers with their heads photoshopped onto muscular bodies. When they are hired, they are horrified to find out that they need to supply their own lawnmower and other necessities, but badger the poor client into stopping by Greg’s nan’s house to borrow her mower. When finally let loose on the woman’s yard, Greg mows away, leaving big grassy patches where her dog has pooped. As Greg says, “The VIP Lawn Service has a very strict policy when it comes to dog poop, which is that we won’t go anywhere near it.” She refuses to pay and he is aghast. So clearly this isn’t the most mature of all reads, but it’s not trying to be. It’s just funny and trashy in a market of kid’s books which, to be honest, is leaning towards the serious and depressing more than anything lately. Reading something stupid can be relaxing and fun, and for a lot of kids, normal. Siblings who tell you that if you eat watermelon the seeds will grow them in your belly. (Cue picture of Greg turning up to school in a maternity dress with a belly distended by melon.) A mother who starts a “Reading-Is-Fun-Club” but bans all his neighbourhood friends’ books (“Xtreme Pop-Up Sharks”, “Ultimate Video Game Cheats”, “Green Wasp”) for important literature (“Anne of Green Gables”, “Little Women”) and is surprised when everyone quits after the first meeting. A father who gets an admission from his own dad during a visit to his retirement home that his childhood dog, Nutty, did not “run away to a butterfly farm” as he was originally told. (Cue picture of dog in butterfly farm.)

Greg watches a grown-up horror film and spends the rest of the book expecting to be attacked by a muddy detached hand. Greg and Rowley have a falling out. Greg flirts with a lifeguard at the pool. All that goes on isn’t particularly wacky, but Greg’s honesty and interpretations make everything a hoot. When his mother makes him read “Charlotte’s Web” for the Reading-Is-Fun-Club, he observes, “Just from looking at the cover, I guarantee either the girl or the pig doesn’t make it to the end of the book.” The amusing reality of life is really the book’s greatest appeal; finding the funny in the banal. Not that your ten-plus readership gives a toss about those kinds of statements; they’re just waiting for gags like Greg’s mum signing him up for modelling as a youth, and the one place his picture ends up—on the cover of the book “Your Child and Constipation”.

The movie version’s out next April, starring Steve Zahn, Chloe Moretz (from 500 Days of Summer) and Zachary Gordon as Greg. And I’ll be there, front row, big bucket of popcorn, waiting to snort flat Coke out of my nose. Don’t let the fact it’s a kid’s book turn you off. Just read the damn thing. With enough effort, you too can be wimpy.

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