Thursday, December 4, 2014

We're All Wimpy Kids At Heart

I found it incredibly interesting that Jeff Kinney made it known that Diary of a Wimpy Kid was originally intended for an adult audience because this is a book that is sophisticated in many subtle ways that I think often go over the heads of the children it is generally marketed to.  While I was reading this book around campus, it got a reception that I couldn’t have ever anticipated—basically all of my friends with younger siblings gushed about how hilarious they found the books to be (when they stole them from their little brothers or sisters to read, of course).  This left me wondering what exactly it was about Greg Heffley’s story that resonated with not only the elementary and middle school demographic I always assumed it was restricted to, but also with my college-aged peers and myself.

            I think that at its core, Diary of a Wimpy Kid accesses a period of time in the readers’ lives during which they were exceptionally confused and uncertain of what they were expected to become.  Adolescence is a time of continuous transition and oftentimes represents a point when a child must somehow realign their identity to fit with a newly maturing environment and social group.   Kinney’s humor comes from the, more often than not, botched navigation of these uncertainties and insecurities.  It is funny for us to see Greg struggle with issues of popularity and acceptance not because we enjoy his pain, but because we sympathize with it.  It is a form of humor that is unaware of its self-deprecation, as Greg is too self-centered to see the hypocrisy of his actions and irony (a word he even defines for his reader) of the situations he finds himself in.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Why Young Adult Literature Matters So Much

The last time I sat down to read a children’s book (for my own benefit, at least) was when I was still a child. Reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid led me to a great deal of reflection on the books that I had loved so much when I was young and had no idea who Milton or Faulkner or Plath were. Instead, books like Magyk by Angie Sage, Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, and, of course, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series were the ones to incite my passion for literature.

While it is sometimes looked down on as a less than serious form of writing, young adult literature is, for me at least, one of the most important genres to ever come into being. It serves as the bridge between  children’s literature and “regular,” adult literature. The books that teens and preteens read during these formative years can have a spectacular influence on them later on in life. And my own case, it was a crucial step in my journey to eventually pursuing English literature not only as a major, but also as something that I am truly passionate about even outside of the classroom.

When I was fourteen, I picked up a discounted copy of John Green’s Looking For Alaska and thought, “Hm, this might be good, and it’s only four bucks, so if I don’t like it, whatever.” I ended up loving it – it’s still one of my favorite books to this day – and it was one of the stepping stones that led me to pursuing literature in the way that I do now.  At one point in the novel, the main character reads a few lines from a poem by W.H. Auden and remarks that it was “pretty good.” Alaska replies, “ Pretty good? Sure, and bufriedos are pretty good. Sex is pretty fun. The sun is pretty hot. Jesus, it says so much about love and brokenness––it’s perfect.” And it was perfect. At fourteen (the age when you don’t just feel things, you feel things), I felt what was going on in the poem. I understood what Auden meant, and what that in turn meant to me. The line was from “As I Walked Out One Evening,” which remains my favorite poem of all time, and I owe it all to a young adult novel.

So even though I am long past the years when reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid could possibly affect me in that way, I understand and respect what Jeff Kinney is doing as a young adult author, and I hope that the teens or preteens who pick up the book feel the same way that I did.

Greg's Superiority Theory

            Arguably the biggest takeaway from Diary of a Wimpy Kid is Greg’s social commentary on adolescence and adulthood from his perspective as an adolescent.  While adolescents sometimes have a stereotype of being immature and unbelievable, Greg makes several valid observations about the other characters and his social situation through humor, similar to several of our other authors.  Despite his youth and inexperience, Greg echoes many of the themes we have discussed in class before, especially the superiority theory.
            While Toni wrote her post about Greg versus the bullies, I would argue Greg even questions the hierarchy between parents and children.  Early in the book, Mrs. Craig is yelling at Greg for listening to Rock and Roll music when Greg “was going to tell her that there weren’t even any batteries in the CD player, but I [he] could tell she didn’t want to be interrupted.  So I [he] just waited until she was done, and then I [he] said, ‘yes,ma’am’” (35 Kinney).  We also see this when Rowley’s dad yells at Greg and Rowley for scaring the little boy in their “Hall of Screams” haunted house or when Greg’s mom yells at Manny for having inappropriate magazines in school.  Lastly, Greg admits he knows when his dad says “friend”, he knows he is in trouble, but “the good thing about Dad is that when he gets mad, he cools off real quick, and then it’s over.  Usually, if you mess up in front of Dad, he just throws whatever he’s got in his hands at you” (38-39 Kinney). 
            Evidently, Greg is a keen observer of his social situations, as many of our studied humorists are; like Sedaris or Madea, Greg is merely making fun of quirks adults have that few adolescents (and adults) can pinpoint.  Greg never necessarily upsets the power structure between parents and children, but his observations about how his mother, father, or Mrs. Craig use their authority calls into question if adults really are more logical than children sometimes.  Greg caricatures these adults yelling at him for asinine things like listening to music to poke fun at adults.  Greg almost makes the adults in his story seem like the teacher in Charlie Brown who talks incoherently.  In this way, Greg (and mostly Kinney) adheres to the superiority theory of humor by the child making fun of the adults.        

Satire: Appropriate For All Ages?

            From what I remember of the children’s books I read growing up (and it hasn’t been that long) is that the main characters are often idealistic representations of children: moral, proper, intelligent, and all-around “good kids.” With that in mind, I think what Diary of a Wimpy Kid loses in morality, it gains in realism: Greg Heffley is closer to Goofus than he is to Gallant, and this makes for a more recognizable and more humorous character. He doesn’t hesitate to point out the flaws in other people and even manipulates and exacerbates those shortcomings, even with his friend Rowley. Among other things, he launches a negative campaign against a rival student government candidate, watches Rowley struggle under the weight of his barbells and attempts to hit him with a football as he speeds down his hill on a small tricycle. I think the rest of you make a good point when you say this is pure superiority theory: whether we’re laughing with Greg for pulling one over on his friend or laughing at Greg for his naïve understanding of the world, there’s a little malice in the humor here.
            If anything, I think Greg is written in the recent tradition of cynicism towards the American nuclear family. If Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a reaction against overly moral childhood figures, it’s quite likely that the book’s humor has something to do with psychological relief or release. I’ve been going through old episodes of The Simpsons recently, and I can’t help but think that Greg Heffley is a spiritual successor to Bart Simpson. In a way, we rejoice in seeing our forbidden childhood temptations run amok. As mature adults, we’ve learned to cooperate with the forces that be and internalized them as the superego; Greg, on the other hand, is pure id. His childish whims and desires are instantly realized in the course of the book and it’s kind of exciting to someone living the life our parents would never let us live.

            I think this also brings up a debate that’s been going on in class for most of the semester—that is, whether or not humor can be transformative or socially instructive. I think we have the same expectations of children’s books as we do of satire: we want to have a little fun, but we also want to find some guidance. Although they’re “just books,” we expect to find a moral to it all. As adults, we can easily recognize that Greg is in a period of transition between naïveté and maturity. He makes mistakes and faces their social consequences. But when children’s literature is expected to be very explicit in its moral lesson—nothing short of stating outright that such-and-such is bad—is there something dangerous about a more “realistic” child character? What happens if children don’t see past all the nuances of the narrative to find the moral at the center? I guess we could ask the same of satire: Should the lesson be overtly obvious? Is it possible for a social concern to get lost in the art of humor itself?

For King and Kinney

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is more than just a humorous “journal” of the day-to-day life of Greg. It is an account of the trials and tribulations associated with leaving childhood and entering adolescence. The humor of the story arises from Greg’s mishaps and the way he interprets the various new problems he encounters in middle school. These problems range from bullying, meeting girls, being popular, bulking up, etc. Greg suddenly finds himself thrust into a world in which every person judges him for each and every one of his actions in his life. The value of the story comes from the fact that author, Jeff Kinney, is addressing very real societal concerns.
For example, Greg notes that every year the school is forced to watch the movie, “It’s Great to be Me.” He writes, “The movie is all about how you should be happy with who you are and not change anything about yourself. To be honest with you, I think that’s a really dumb message to be telling kids, especially the ones at my school.” (150-151). Under this excerpt is a cartoon of a bully pushing another child over while saying, “It’s great to be me.” The line between Kinney and Greg in this particular passage in almost indistinguishable. Our society has the tendency to reward children for virtually every action they do. I’m not saying it is a bad thing at all to constantly surround children with positive feedback, that type of environment certainly fosters happiness and healthiness. However, we need to dedicate more attention to condemning negative actions, even when they aren’t being performed. Kinney is raising the very real concern that some children are growing up not understanding that their actions are wrong. He believes that we should focus now on constantly reminding children how they should treat one another because as children, their moral compasses are just starting to be constructed.

This passage reminded me somewhat of King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he calls for an end to the societal structures that allow and propagate injustice. Kinney is making a similar plea by showing the humorous concerns and stresses of a young adolescent’s life. Sure Greg’s problems seem trivial to us now as adults but it is essential to remember that these children are slowly becoming the people they will be for the rest of their lives and it is our duty as their mentors to help guide them on a path to making moral decisions that benefit themselves and others.

"Types" of People

Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid documents middle school pretty accurately. Or, at least, it offers a personal spin on some important moments, and those moments are just as I remember them. The lens of a middle school girl is, of course, very different, but he covers the stressful moment of choosing a seat on the first day of class and the minor victory of having a new teacher, as well as the baffling nature of popularity rankings, with accuracy and gusto. Kinney’s accompanying drawings definitely also added something to the humor that would otherwise have been impossible to convey. This comic-turned-novel captured all the best parts of talking to kids. They think they’re funny when they aren’t (e.g. when Greg and his friends laugh at kid with the initials “P.U.”) and they’re hilarious when they don’t try (e.g. when Greg tells us that he’s been interested in girls forever, and it’s not fair that the social dynamics have changed). Kids never quite match our expectations, and Kinney keeps this incongruous quality preserved. His illustrations and language are apt and I can easily see why this book was recommended to me both by a female college-aged roommate and by an eight-year-old boy whom I babysit. The two cited different aspects of the book as amusing, but that makes perfect sense. The latter understands all the opinions and tragic situations in which Greg finds himself, and my roommate sees the ridiculous-taken-seriously in Greg.

The Greg in this novel is completely self-centered, and doesn’t care much for the trials of other people. He mentions his neighbor, shipped off to military school, with hardly a thought, he successfully humiliates P.U., is horrified at his best friend’s personal stupidity and thinks his personal popularity is the most important thing in the world. Greg is constantly categorizing people in his head as “popular,” or “smart,” or “nerdy,” and desires nothing more than superiority over his peers. Some of the intended humor in this books is certainly grounded in superiority theory, as when Greg plays the most classic pranks on Rowley, but there is more to it than that. Greg is certainly childish and is himself a type, which point his animation drives home. However, I grant him some leeway because he is in the process of becoming a functioning member of society, figuring out just what it takes to get along in the world. This is a painful process, as anyone ought to remember, and discovering just what “type” of person you are is the whole point.

“This is a JOURNAL, Not a Diary”

Catlin Castan
Dr. Ellis
Humor Studies
2 December 2014
“This is a JOURNAL, Not a Diary”
            While reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid I could not help but laugh out loud. Kinney introduces us to Greg Heffley, the text’s protagonist, a hilariously witty and overly dramatic middle-schooler. As early as page one of the text, Greg makes something very clear: “this is a JOURNAL, not a diary”(1). However, as we read, we can see that everything about Greg’s so-called “journal” is consistent with the textbook definition of what a diary is: “a book in which one keeps a daily record of events and experiences”( Here, we notice, that even from the very beginning of the text, Greg has a tendency of telling us one thing but then of actually doing another thing (and that other thing is quite different!). These occurrences of incongruity prove to be points of comedic genius—the most comical of these points being that despite Greg’s staunch opposition to the notion of keeping a “diary”, we see by the novel’s end, that we have just read a full compilation of Greg’s recordings regarding events and experiences from his daily life.
            I found this technique of “telling us one thing but then doing another” to be reminiscent of Chaucer’s work. Namely, Chaucer often prefaces his major points of emphasis or important themes by telling his audience that he “doesn’t have time to talk and/ or write about them” but in the act of telling us that, he is actually making time and creating space for making these points within his narrative scope. Although a bit convoluted, this technique prompts the audience to read more closely into the text and observe characters and subject matter more attentively.
            I also found it interesting to note that this book was initially intended for an adult audience but then later adapted to accommodate a younger audience. While I agree that Diary of a Wimpy Kid would definitely appeal to a child audience, I tend to think that it is more appealing for the book’s initial intended target audience: adults. As I said earlier, one of the main sources of our laughter is derived from the incongruity that we observe between thoughts and actions. However, a similar incongruity exists between the comprehension level and understanding between adults and children. Many times I found myself laughing at Greg because I felt that his creativity, attitude, and (somewhat skewed) perspective on life was reminiscent of my middle- school- self.  In other words, while I was able to relate to Greg (despite the current age difference), I was also able to vicariously experience and retrospectively reflect on each moment now as an adult reader: a very different experience!  Here, we notice another one of the novel’s great achievements: its quality of relatability. We laugh as we read because we have are able to relate and connect with Kinney’s characters; We place ourselves within the text in terms of family order and relationships, school reputation, and self-esteem. We are able to draw upon our own personal experiences (and laugh) as we watch the Heffley family and friends undergo the various trials and tribulations of everyday life.