The Ugly Truth was No. 5 in the series of Diary of a Wimpy Kid graphic novels by Jeff Kinney about the adventures of a not terribly prepossessing (and not all that admirable, either) middle school student named Greg Heffley. Can it be: A massive bestseller about a kid with no superpowers in what may be the most awkward and painful of all the stages of life? That’s right. And it’s valuable, I think, to consider what makes this series such a monster hit with our kids.
A lot has been written about the Wimpy Kids graphic novel format, which has appealed to millions of grade- and middle-schoolers who were previously unenthusiastic readers—especially, but not limited to, boys. Kinney sees himself as more a cartoonist than an author, and his drawings are, in themselves, laugh-out-loud funny. But the text is very funny, too. And one of the reasons his dead-pan humor is so tough to resist, at any age, is how darkly honest it is.
You could argue that middle school is a dark comedy waiting to happen. Consider the crazy physical changes kids undergo in these years, on wildly different timetables, resulting in kids like Greg, who look like boys, sitting in math class next to kids who look like men and (perhaps even more challenging to Greg) women. Kids are changing faster in these years of early adolescence than at any time since infancy. They’re trying to figure out not only how their bodies work but who they are going to be and where they fit in. That’s why they are both desperate to make friends and capable of turning on those friends savagely. That’s why they can be merciless to anyone who’s different.
“The terrible twelves are a complete analog to the terrible twos,” journalist Linda Perlstein, who’s written a book on the subject, tells This American Life in a broadcast about middle school. “They’re just not as cute.”
A good deal of what Wimpy Kid is about is the brutality of middle school, the baldly hostile and hurtful things kids do to each other at this age. Greg records in his diary his (often unsuccessful) efforts to avoid being trashed by other kids who are cooler or bigger or more sophisticated than he is. Not that he is blameless, either. He complains a lot about bullies—when he’s not bullying (or attempting to bully) others, including his on-again, off-again best friend.
In fact Kinney celebrates Greg’s imperfections. “Greg is a deeply flawed protagonist.,” he told USA Today a couple of years ago. “I think adults who voice complaints about Greg’s shortcomings are missing the joke. Kids get that Greg isn’t perfect, and I think that’s why they like him.”
The appeal of Wimpy Kid comes into focus when you hear a 14-year-old named Annie, also on This American Life, describing her relief at escaping from middle school, and the agonies she went through trying to avoid being a target of other kids while she was there. “No matter who you are or what you do you’ll get made fun of for it—anything in the world. It can be hard to do even the smallest thing because someone could tease you or judge you for it.”
She confesses that when she got a pair of lace-up moccasins she loved it took her two months to get up the courage to wear them to school. “I didn’t want to stand out that much.”
And a boy interviewed outside a middle school dance, asked what his hopes were for the event, said with surprising candor: “I’m hoping nothing bad happens—no humiliation, nothing that will be a story for the next month or two.”
Suffice it to say that in the Wimpy Kid books, Greg is often too clueless to avoid those pitfalls, but he lives to tell about them, and if he’s not quite laughing about it, the readers are. He turns the humiliations of middle school into a comedy, and that’s no mean feat.
A librarian who wrote about the first book in the series on her blog said, “No one in their right mind would ever want to return to the days of Middle School, but if Jeff Kinney keeps churning out books like this one, I’ll follow him there any day of the week.” For those who have no choice but to be there—our children—Kinney’s humor offers more balm in this developmentally rich but precarious time than any platitudes we might offer.