TERRY GROSS, host:
The big news in the world of books last week was that German writer Herta Muller won the Nobel Prize. The big news in the world of books this week is that the fourth novel in Jeff Kinney's wildly bestselling "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series for preteens has just hit bookstores. And it's the number one bestseller on amazon.com.
Book critic Maureen Corrigan says it was hard to decide which milestone to focus on but comedy ultimately triumphed.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Our local independent bookstore opened extra early on the morning of October 12th to sell copies of the insanely anticipated latest book in Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series, this one entitled "Dog Days." The last time I remember that bookstore being overrun with hordes of kids yelping for a book was when the final "Harry Potter" novel came out. It was midnight when the Potter boxes were broken open and the kids were dressed as macabre creatures from Hogwarts.
The atmosphere surrounding the arrival of Kinney's latest book was appropriately sprightlier. The bookstore opened at dawn, after all, and distributed doughnuts. Like the Potter series, Kinney's books are aimed at a middle-school audience but translate well to older readers. Unlike the Potter series, Kinney's books are funny, the kind of funny where you have to stop reading every so often because you're laughing so hard, tears and snot are running down your face and you feel like maybe you'll even throw up. How's that for an erudite critical endorsement?
I started reading Kinney at the command of my 11-year-old daughter. One of the things she hates most in the world is when adults loom over her and ask, so, are you a big reader like your mother? She's not. She's much more socially well-adjusted than I am and doesn't seek out quiet corners where she can seal herself off with a book, far from the madding crowd. She soured on the Potter saga about halfway through when the storylines got grislier. Kinney, however, is just her ticket.
Not only is this series' hero, Greg Heffley, a middle-school everyman, forever waiting for his growth spurt as he's surrounded by gorilla classmates who need to shave twice a day, but the books themselves are stories in cartoon form, otherwise known as graphic novels.
Because the conceit of the series is that the books themselves are journals that Greg is keeping, the cartoons here are strictly stick figure. But what a range of middle-school misery Kinney wrings out of a few lines - the bend of Greg's back under a Jumbotron-sized book bag, the quaking of his scrawny body as he's perched on the edge of the freezing school pool, waiting for the swim meet whistle to blow and seal his doom. The cartoons don't merely illustrate the story, they advance it, and split it off into a hundred digressive tributaries, working like the footnotes in Eliot's "Wasteland."
Admittedly, maybe I'm reaching for a high art analogy because I'm still a little uncomfortable about my kid preferring to read what amounts to a hardcover comic book series over, say, "Little Women." But Kinney has anticipated this kind of helicopter-parent squeamishness. In "Dog Days," Greg Heffley's relentlessly chirpy mom starts a summer reading club. At the first meeting, the other boys report on the books they've brought, among them "Sudoku Insanity" and "X-Treme Pop-Up Sharks."
Greg's mom says these books aren't real literature and insists that the club is going to have to start with the classics. Greg says that he's not really sure what makes a book a classic but he thinks it has to be at least 50 years old and some person or animal has to die at the end. He says these are the type of books teachers are always pushing us to read at school and that if you read a classic in your free time, the teachers reward you with a sticker of a hamburger or something like that. Clearly Kinney has an ear and eye for the middle-school milieu.
For adult readers, he vividly brings back the oceanic feeling of helplessness that swamps most of us at that age, when you're not in control of your weirdly changing body or, much of the time, even what you're allowed to eat or read.
Last spring, in the delirious company of my daughter and two of her middle-school guy friends, I heard Jeff Kinney speak at the University of Maryland. It was one of the best author talks I've ever attended. Kinney had the whole cavernous auditorium, adults, kids, roaring with laughter. Kinney gets the powerlessness of late childhood. In his appearance that day and throughout his ongoing series, he's made all the wimpy kids out there know that they're in good company.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days" by Jeff Kinney.
I'm Terry Gross.
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