The concerns of Greg Heffley, the star of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, seem more prosaic than Hugo’s. Greg isn’t a lonely orphan searching for meaning; he’s just trying to make it through middle school without sinking lower than his current social stratum, which he estimates at “somewhere between the 52nd and 53rd most popular.”
There are no gorgeous penciled panoramas or stills from Georges Méliès films here. Kinney doesn’t use his art to provoke awe, or even to move the plot forward; the books are marketed as “novels in cartoons,” but the more appropriate description might be novel with comic strip. Kinney’s stories follow a familiar setup-setup-gag structure, with the setup usually conveyed in text and the punch line delivered via simple but eye-catching line drawings.
For many young readers Wimpy Kid will be the more potent tale; Kinney remembers better than most adults the ferocious desire for popularity that drives kids this age. Even years later, you’ll ashamedly recognize the impulses that drive Greg to throw his gooney best friend, Rowley, to the wolves in order to raise himself in the eyes of his classmates.
At a time when so many children’s books are simply products rather than the product of passion—the heirs of “Goosebumps” and “Sweet Valley High”—it’s hard to imagine many eyebrows being raised by Cabret and Wimpy Kid, books whose success might ten years ago have provoked agonized “Arts & Ideas” articles about the debasement of children’s literature. It’d be nice, though, if parents who likely hope that their children’s obsessions might serve as a gateway to “real” books might also steer them toward real comics. Young readers who enjoy the “Wimpy Kid” novels could graduate to Jimmy Gownley’s “Amelia Rules!” series, one very wise in its treatment of the knotty emotional struggles of preteen-hood. And kids who love Hugo Cabret might have a sophisticated enough graphic sensibility to approach Shaun Tan’s recent The Arrival, an immigration parable that also illustrates its story in rich detail but, unlike Cabret, does away with words entirely.