Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Reading: Diary of a Wimpy [Mean-Spirited] Kid (Picture Book)

So, I have to tell you something super exciting:

After being deployed since July 22 of last year, my fiancee is finally coming back on Friday!  Although he's been thousands of miles away, he has devotedly contacted me in some way every day, either by email or by "text-talking" (which is completely different from texting, in my opinion), Skyping at ports (though I am totally not a skyper), and by sending me lots of presents!  In turn, I sent him emails and packages with letters, too!  These exchanges of words have been so meaningful for me, and while an email doesn't replace the absence left by a person, it still allows me to get a small glimpse of him each day!  Thus, I am ever grateful for words and the ways in which they can be exchanged, be it slow mail, email, Skype, text-talk, or by a note included in a package from Amazon!  In an ever-evolving world, it seems that the ways to "keep in touch" is growing boundless.

The same is true for books.  Readers can consume their books in a variety of ways, from E-readers to audiobooks.  And now more than ever, there are a variety of books to read! While an old-fashioned book containing a story between the covers will always make my heart feel most content, other types of reading materials can still be a comfort!  I find that many of the students in my class love reading graphic novels, a type of book that was not even in print when I was an elementary student. Babymouse,  Bone,  and Diary of a Wimpy Kid are constantly on circulation from the school library and are the books that my students typically try to sneakily read under their desks.  While I am pleased that my students are engaged by reading, I have been concerned about the overconsumption of these books, as they do not represent quality literature or help children to subconsciously acquire writing skills.  I read Diary of a Wimpy Kid for the first time and expected to read a funny story about a shy student who somehow becomes the victor among his classmates.  Instead, like junk food, I feel like this book and its series should be devoured in small doses, partially because of the quality of literature and mostly because I feel like Greg Heffley is no role model.

Like junk food, I feel like this book and its series should be devoured in small doses.

First, I don't like how Greg treats his best friend, Rowley.  It seems that Greg bullies his best friend the way the high school kids or school "jocks" in the story bully him.   Greg seems to befriend Rowley just so he can go play video games when he is punished from them at home, and he even expresses concern throughout the book that Rowley is suppressing him from reaching his full social potential.  He doesn't stick up for Rowley when he is wrongly accused of scaring the kindergartners with worms, and when Rowley does take a stand for himself, Greg feels belittled!  How does Gregory cope with this?  Well, he decides to be nice to Rowley anyway so that (hopefully) Rowley will invite Greg along to the year-end Safety Patrol celebratory trip to Six Flags, an entitlement that Greg just doesn't deserve.  And when Rowley moves on and befriends another student, Gregory feels jealous and he, in turn, tries to make a new best friend, too, who ends up consuming too much sugar and pestering Greg so that he spends most of his night locked in the bathroom.  (Who would you rather be friends with?)

Further, it seems that Diary of a Wimpy Kid is another book that perpetuates stereotypes and places people into categories.  For example, Greg expresses an interest in helping the school cheerleaders get a new van for away games but has no intention of assisting the football players receive new footballs.  The high school kids are depicted as threatening beasts that apparently stalk youngsters for their Halloween candy and force them to eat months-old cheese off the playground. High achieving students are annoying and should be pelted with apples.  Common stereotypes are presented in this book, and after finding little validation for these ideals in reality, I just cannot stomach anymore!
Because boys can't carry bags.  Or sew.
I know that middle school students might relate to Greg on some levels - feeling constantly bossed around by their parents, embarrassed by their younger siblings, and hopeful that they may be positively recognized by their peers - but I feel like Greg does nothing to help his situation!  Perhaps he is just a tormented middle-schooler, but I have read other books in which the characters have many obstacles to overcome and do so with much more stamina, poise, and class than Greg Heffley does.  For example, in Louis Sachar's novel There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, Bradley Chalkers might seem displeasing at first, but the more readers get to know him, the more they understand his situation!  They realize why he is a bully, they learn to feel empathetic for him, and what's more is that his character progresses throughout the book and does become a victor, a title he so much deserves!  Greg Heffley, on the other hand, is static, which is one of the main reasons I am not a fan of his diary.  Throughout the book, he discusses slacking off in school and failing another quiz, and when his parents finally treat him to a special Christmas gift - a weight bench of his very own  - he couldn't be more ungrateful!  Now, perhaps it is unfair for me to label Gregory as "static," as there is a possibility for change in other Wimpy Kid books.  But the first book, spanning the course of one school year, yields no change, and I think that's just sad!  Books are impressionable, and I know we can't expect writers to create gold-star characters in all of their books because that's just not reality, and nobody is perfect, and it is comforting to read about characters who share the same flaws as we do, and yes, children do enjoy reading about colorful characters different from them.  But the fact that Gregory doesn't change or grow is startling to me. 

If Gregory wants to pelt the young girl playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz play at school with apples, fine.  If he wants to pass his unwelcome nickname to another innocent student and let that child take the brunt of it at school instead of him, fine.  If he wants to bully his best friend, fine.  But the fact that Gregory doesn't feel empathy for anyone or express regret for his rude actions or even receive any form of consequence (except for a loss of video game privileges, which didn't even happen when he ruined the entire play production and, more importantly, hit a girl, for Pete's Sake!), really bothers me!  Greg is not the type of role model that I would prefer my young, impressionable students to be learning from.  In fact, I would prefer for them to analyze the Wimpy Kid books and think about ways that Greg could have been proactive and solved his problems or ways that he could have demonstrated good citizenship instead.  It is called The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and I don't believe that anyone wants to be considered "wimpy," so perhaps this book is a lesson for students about how to not be wimpy?  

When I walk down the halls at school, I see posters promoting this book in several upper-grade classrooms.  I feel like I might be the only person that doesn't absolutely adore these books, but I just cannot promote them when I want my students to be inspired by role models!  Sure, I understand that The Diary of a Wimpy Kid is entertaining for students with its scatalogical humor and annoyance for all things adults. And I would rather my students read these books than nothing at all.  But I hope that along with The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, they also read quality literature that teaches them what it means to have character.  I hope they read books that challenge stereotypes.  I hope they read books in which characters' actions are based on their own aspirations and not just to make it onto the "Class Favorites" yearbook page.  I hope they read books that can teach them about quality writing.  Children can naturally learn so much about writing by reading books that are well-written, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid is not a strong example of writing.  Adjectives, similes, and dialogue are noticeably absent from this book.  I almost think I could provide my students each with a different journal entry from the book and allow them to make it better by adding in elements that we talk about in writing everyday!  In fact, they'd probably enjoy that activity!  Hmm...

In conclusion, it is evident that I am not a fan of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  I am not going to banish them from my classroom library, as everyone is welcome to write and read what they would like.  But I hope that in my own teaching, I inspire my students to read quality literature and introduce them to some other books and series that they love to try to sneakily read, too!  In their reading, I hope they can find a true victor. 

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