There is no dearth of fiction for teaching young white boys how to be sociopaths. Catcher in the Rye did it famously, its commentary on childhood innocence allegedly inspiring a handful of killers in the eighties. Perhaps children of the early 2000s should be grateful for tamer coming-of-age protagonists who dealt with school bullies, boogers, and cursed slices of cheese within the vacuum of endless middle school. The rise of the middle grade fiction novel gave birth to cultural figures like Big Nate and Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s Greg Heffley, who mirror the contemporary American boy. Injected with whiteness, and characterized by mediocrity, these beloved characters are distinguished by the comedy that erupts from their normalcy. Authors like Jeff Kinney know how to think like kids in all their oxymoronic plurality, perfectly executing the wiley ignorance and backwards judgement of the unsocialized prepubescent.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a satire, plain and simple. The first page of the novel finds Greg with his self-image compromised by his older brother Rodrick after he laments the emasculating connotations of owning a diary. Calling him a “sissy”, Rodrick pushes Greg to the ground, sending his diary and pen flying. Kinney establishes right away that Greg Heffley is not a character constructed for the purpose of being loved, admired, or envied. The reader is meant to find amusement in his failure and the impressive elasticity of his swollen ego after the fact. An insidious realism underlies the formulaic charm of the beloved series, in its portrayal of the white suburban male as well as its depiction of racialized and gendered peer dynamics. Like all kids’ media, Wimpy Kid exploits storied clichés– the Mischievous Younger Brother, the Most Popular Boy In School. However, its perpetuation of other, more sociometrically weighted archetypes push the limits of what is productive satire, and what is simply a black mirror of white suburban life.
When Greg’s classmate Chirag Gupta makes a snide comment about Greg’s inability to make headway in his romantic pursuit of Holly Hills, Greg convinces the school to ignore Chirag indefinitely, which he coins “Invisible Chirag”. On its own, this joke is in line with any other Gregism, needlessly cruel and petty. However, Greg goes on to say that he “liked Chirag a whole lot better when he was in India”, where Chirag had been visiting his family. This racialization serves to Other Chirag from the primarily white cast of book characters, a decision that seems too poignant to be intentional, and yet too glaring to be mere coincidence. In identifying Chirag with an explicitly non-white ethnic identity, Kinney Others Chirag to the reader as well, especially considering the context. Two things define Chirag at this point in the novel: he is Invisible, and he is Indian. To give Kinney credit for offering commentary on the Indian American experience would be beyond generous, especially since such a moment of racial nuance would be an unprecedented occurrence within the series. Suspending doubt about Kinney’s intent to critique the persecution of children of color in primarily white environments, it must be asked: How are children expected to parse this particular degree of satire, which requires an understanding of race-based Otherness? The medium requires a fundamental understanding of the world it aims to critique—an understanding many people aren’t acquainted with at such a young age. What they might observe is the way in which Kinney’s work mirrors real-life race dynamics. However, they almost certainly will not undergo the epiphanous processes a satire is supposed to incite, and begin to think critically around racism as a fixture in their young lives. Jeff Kinney has explained that his original intent was to direct Diary of A Wimpy Kid towards adults, presenting a clever narrative set in childhood for older readers to consume nostalgically. The first book only became a children’s novel when his publisher told him he’d actually written a book for kids. With this in mind, the attitude the reader is meant to take towards the Invisible Chirag is further muddied. Though adults may understand the satire at play, it’s unclear what aspect of the joke Kinney wants readers to find comedic; Chirag, not Greg, is the object of ridicule. Older readers may have the capacity to sympathize with Chirag, but will they?
A character in the series with slightly more agency would be Patty Farrell, an overachieving thorn in the flesh of Greg’s persistent mediocrity. When Patty is cast to play Dorothy in the school’s production of The Wizard of Oz, Greg pelts Patty with apples, terrorizing her before the audience. Patty, brunette, bespectacled, and not conventionally attractive even by cartoon standards, is a woman the reader is meant to despise, even more so than Greg. In fact, it appears as though Patty exists for the sole purpose of humanizing Greg. The inciting incident that turns the reader against Patty occurs when she encourages her teacher to cover up a map of the United States during a geography test, the presence of which Greg was depending on not to fail the exam. From there, Patty’s misdeeds are negligible. Greg’s hatred for Patty is a true product of his own inadequacy, stemming from his unwillingness to study for the test himself. This archetype of the Annoying Overachieving Girl is consistent across other incarnations of cartoon fiction. In Big Nate, Nate Wright often faces off against Gina, the smartest girl in school, whom he nicknames “Needle Nose” a reference to foxlike sharpness of her cartoon face. Yes, Gina persistently insults Nate’s intelligence, often drawn with a signature smirk to convey her swollen sense of self-importance. Why then, in Nate’s signature nickname for Gina not something to do with her ego? In both novels, female success is equated to ugliness and unlikeability. This relationship may resonate with the intended readership for these books (young, white males), but when referencing similar books intended for a female audience like Rachel Reneé Russell’s Dork Diaries, male characters escape this routine villainization. In fact, the antagonist of Dork Diaries is another girl.
There is truth in these themes of female antagony, not necessarily in the characterization of smart girls as nemesis, but in the divided gender dynamics of middle school. The gender binary of American youth is defined by the perception of the other sex as irreconcilably different, sometimes inferior. For this, Jeff Kinney and Lincoln Peirce lay claim to realism, even poignance. But fraught gender and race relations are not inherent to human nature. These dynamics are learned. While children’s literature doesn’t necessarily harbor a responsibility to socialize its readership towards equality and harmony, socialization happens nonetheless. Perhaps the way Jeff Kinney’s book, originally intended for adults his own age, resonates with the middle schoolers of the 21st century is indicative of the cyclical nature of middle school, as well as the potent legacy of children’s literature. To be sure, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is an accurate sketch of the sensational normalcy of youth and the institutions of identity that shape adolescence; its resonance is its comedy. The cultural landscape, however, is not starved for comedy geared towards younger white males, and books for children, who are not yet so fixed in their thoughts and ideals, should be more universal than their more advanced contemporaries. Is there a place in children’s literature for visionary comedy, or will light-hearted tales of childhood forever be regurgitated through the lens of carefree whiteness and masculinity at the expense of the Other?