6 March marked this year’s World Book Day in the UK, so time once again for Professor Keith Topping of the University of Dundee to publish his annual “What Kids Are Reading” report (downloadable here). It’s a fascinating atomisation of the reading habits of nearly half a million British children aged five to sixteen, one which is traditionally dominated by that great Pied Piper of children’s literature, Roald Dahl. But not this year, for it appears that the children of the UK have joined their American cousins on the spectacularly successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid bandwagon. Or should I say tour bus…
To mark the publication of the eighth book in Jeff Kinney‘s terrific Wimpy Kid series, Hard Luck, the author embarked on a grand tour of the United States and Europe on this bus. It’s a big one, but after all, Greg Heffley, the middle-school hero of the series, is something of a superstar. According to the Wall Street Journal, Hard Luck sold upwards of a million copies the week it was published, from a staggering 5.5 million-book print run. In Topping’s study, the first seven volumes of the series occupied the top seven spots in the list of books most read by pupils in Year 6 (= fifth grade) in the UK last year. And Kinney was the most-read author overall for Years 1 through 11, beating Roald Dahl into second place (they tied for top spot in 2013). At the New York Public Library, there are 2,171 copies of the Wimpy Kid series in circulation, not including the movie diary, audiobooks, or Spanish-language editions.
The key to Kinney’s success? Part of it is the changing shape of reading. Diary of a Wimpy Kid was first published on the educational website FunBrain.com, which has received 80 million Wimpy Kid fan visits since Greg Heffley’s debut in 2004. Web success led to the publication of the first physical edition in 2007, followed by a new volume every year since (including two in 2009). And Hollywood inevitably followed:
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (2011) and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (2012) were released shortly thereafter. The average box office haul for a Wimpy Kid movie is over $100 million, the classical definition of a blockbuster.
But of course it’s more than just Hollywood and the internet. For one thing, Kinney has achieved what many thought impossible in turning “boys previously allergic to reading” into avid readers (LA Times). Ironic, perhaps, given Greg’s scorn for literature. In Dog Days, which takes place over the course of one of those glorious, seemingly endless childhood summers, Greg’s mom is keen to get her son into reading and starts a “Reading Is Fun Club” to which she invites some of the other neighbourhood boys “so she could teach us about all the great literature we were missing out on.” “I’m not really sure what makes a book a ‘classic’ to begin with,” writes Greg; “but I think it has to be at least fifty years old and some person or animal has to die at the end.” Needless to say, the club is not a success, and on the second day only Greg and his best friend, Rowley, return.
I doubt this would have been the case had Greg’s mom presented her wards with a pile of Jeff Kinney books.
They’re hilarious! Greg is Bart Simpson, Nigel Molesworth, Adrian Mole and (a preadolescent) Holden Caulfield rolled into one. His brothers, teenage thug Rodrick and infant Manny, who has to be stopped from washing his hands in urinals, are excellent foils. Greg’s hapless parents exhibit the baffling behaviour typical of grown-ups seen through the eyes of kids. But my favourite character is Rowley — the Milhouse to Greg’s Bart — a delightful, goony naif who repeatedly embarrasses his friend:
Each book has its running gags, like the “L’il Cutie” cartoons in Dog Days, which unite Greg and his dad in scorn, and the concept of “Cheese Touch” in the first volume:
The cruelty and humiliations of childhood, so fondly rendered by Kinney, are endlessly fertile material. The eight volumes of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid will sit alongside the best-loved children’s classics for generations to come. Although it’s hard to see the onscreen Heffleys managing another movie as they rocket inexorably towards adult life, here’s hoping that the Greg on the page has a good few years left in him yet.