Read It Then See It: Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Last Straw & Dog Days

My boys are both huge fans of this series, but despite having seen both DoWK films multiple times (heloooo, summer car trips!), this was my first dive into the books.

The Book(s)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, by Jeff Kinney.  Originally published in 2009.

The Movie
Diary of Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, Fox. Release Date, Aug. 3

Genre
Realistic Fiction/Comedy

Age Appropriate
7 and up. Be ready for bad behavior and the typical scatological predilections of your average middle-school boy.  Some very mild “boy-girl” stuff, as the erstwhile hero begins to try his hand at relationships in spectacularly disastrous fashion.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Hmm.  How do I say this? Do you remember those old Saturday Night Live skits like Chris Farley’s “Living in a van down by the river!” guy?  Not particularly funny, but somehow it stuck in your head and you found yourself repeating it?  That’s how I feel about these books.

Book Availability
No electronic versions of the books are available.  However, you can read a “blog” version of the first three books (through Last Straw) on Kinney’s Fun Brain site. The series is available pretty much everywhere you can buy a book.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Funny as it might seem, it’s actually a little difficult to give a quick plot synopsis here, because the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is, to me, pretty much sketch comedy done in the style of an illustrated diary.  Wikipedia has some slightly longer synopses for Last Straw and Dog Days that might be helpful if you want more details, but here are my thumbnails.

Gregg "helping" his parents right from the start

The Last Straw begins New Year’s Day, as 7th grader Greg Heffley, a selfish and lazy kid with delusions of grandeur deals with the constant annoyances and unfairness of life that come in the form of his Mother, Father, big and little brother, teachers, and friends.

His parents constantly frustrated at his lack of responsibility and interest in anything other than TV and Video Games, as well as total aversion to physical activity, Greg hatches scheme after scheme to find shortcuts to the fame and fortune he feels he so richly deserves.  Enlisting (often reluctantly) his best friend Rowley in his misadventures, he attempts to do things such as put money in time capsules in order to have it pay off when future people come back to pay him interest (only to steal that money, which was Rowley’s, to get a sugar fix) and escape his big brother Rodrick’s clever April Fool’s jokes (a punch in the arm).

A main running theme is that Greg’s father wants to try to “toughen him up” and becomes so frustrated with his complete lack of interest or ability that he threatens to send him to a military academy, starting that summer.  Only when Greg accidentally humiliates himself at a neighbor’s baby’s birthday party, saving his father from having to make a fool out himself, is he able to escape that fate.  The other major recurring theme is his courtship of Holly Hills, which takes a disastrous turn as she ends up seeming to like his friend Rowley better.

Greg's favorite summer hangout (I know, glass houses...)

We pick up with summer break in Dog Days, and Greg is back up to his old tricks.  First, he looks a gift horse squarely in the mouth as he abuses the privileges at Rowley’s country club to such an extent that he’s asked not to return.  And the family’s financial struggles give him precious little else to do other than play video games.

But the country club problems compound when he finds out all the drinks and food they ordered there weren’t free, and he and Rowley were expected to pay for them.  He shows some “initiative” but trying to start up a lawn service with Rowley, but his idea of the partnership was that he would “manage” while Rowley did all the work.  This disaster placed a new strain on their friendship.

Things between Rowley and Greg get even worse when his mother arranges him to get invited to their beach house, and his quest to ride the “Cranium Shaker” plus some misadventures with rubber bands gets him sent home early.  Once there, he decides the public pool isn’t so bad after all as he sets his sights on Holly Hills’ older sister, with predictable results.

The family’s big addition is a new dog, Sweetie, that causes nothing but consternation to everyone except Greg’s mom, and is eventually given away to Greg’s grandma.  He looks back at his mother’s gleeful summer album and realizes that history is told by the victors.

Quickie Review
“Ploopy!”

You heard the man!

What is Ploopy, you say?  Well, it’s a term that Greg’s little brother Manny comes up with as a quasi-insult, and it sticks around for most of The Last Straw, ending in embarrassment at church as Gregg uses it on his little brother, causing a complete meltdown.

It wasn’t that funny, but Ploopy is now a term that is used around our house all the time.  See what I mean about the whole “Van down by the river” thing?

Frankly, I am just not sure what to say about the DoWK series.  Perhaps the best thing would say that it makes me feel old.  I just find it very hard to get through a “story” – and it’s really not a story, it’s a series of short comedic incidents thinly strung together (which is kind of like life sometimes, no?) – where the main character is unlikeable, and shows absolutely no evidence of growth.

It’s the latter part that really bothers me, as I remember being a stupid middle schooler myself, and I have a kid about to jump into the 6th grade jungle dealing with a lot of the same issues.  But in both these cases I see some change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  Here Greg is so static, so unwilling to even find a chip in his world view, that I find myself rooting against him despite the fact that he’s only a (wimpy) kid.

Actually a little more three-dimensional (pun intended)

I must not be completely alone in this, as the DoWK movies, especially the second one, makes significant changes that add a whole arc for Greg ending up in him deciding to make a significant sacrifice to help out his brother.  The closest thing of this sort in the books is Greg’s inadvertent saving of his Dad from having to make a fool of himself, which was really a “I pulled one over on Dad!” moment rather than any true act of kindness.

I will grant you that Kinney creates a number of funny situations that are readily appealing to his target market, and his simple but very evocative illustrations really help drive the jokes home.  Maybe it’s because I’m more of a “laugh with” rather than “laugh at” kind of guy, I just found that the storyline becomes too much one-trick pony.

For the most part, I equate the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series for the 7-12 set akin to my view of the Game of Thrones series for adults—a guilty pleasure with little to no redeeming value other than the fact that it gets kids to read.

Overall Read Score: 2 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
When I first finished the books, I thought I would leave this section entirely blank.  In a series predicated upon a selfish kid who sees everything as unfair and scoffs at any unselfish action, it felt like the anti-SHYB book.

Then I realized that because Kinney doesn’t celebrate Greg’s attitude, but really lampoons it, DoWK is actually a pretty decent cautionary tale that does have some potential for discussion.  Here’s what I got out of it:

Do you like Greg?: I first asked both my kids why they liked the book, and they said, as you might expect “Because it’s funny.”  So that really didn’t give me much to go on.  But when I asked them about Greg, we got into a very interesting discussion.  Both of them realized his faults, and neither of them had any interest in being Greg’s friend because he’s too selfish.  Time and time again his best laid plans ends up turning against him because he only wants to do things his way.  So the lessons of what it means to be a real friend, to be kind to others, and to actually work hard are all here in the inverse.

Yes, I did just bring an ancient Roman poet into the discussion of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Someone kick sand in my face.

Be yourself: Much like Cattulus filling his poetry with profanity just to highlight his small bit of beauty, Kinney has an interesting comeuppance for Greg near the end of The Last Straw when Holly Hills gives him a tepid response in his yearbook despite all his work to show her how funny he is.  For Rowley, however, she has nothing but complements and well-wishes.  My boys and I chatted about this one, and I asked him why they thought that happened.  Both of them got the fact that Greg was doing whatever he could to “con” Holly while Rowley just focused on being himself.

That’s a tough lesson for pretty much anyone, and especially for the 10-18 set. The desperate need to be liked, to fit in, to find approval, often at the expense of others, is on full display in Kinney’s work.  Much of the book goes on to show how poor Greg is even when he attempts to do so, and how angry and embarrassed that makes everyone around him.  But in this instance, we get a great lesson about the fact that if you just focus on being who you are, there will always be people who see the good in you.

When is it time to nix the “trying trophy?”: In Dog Days, there’s a scene where we see how unconditionally supportive Rowley’s parents are, and how Greg sees their coddling of him as being a disservice.  It relates back to Greg’s being so poor at swimming, that he is put in a meet where everyone gets a first place ribbon.  His victory bubble is quickly burst by Rodrick, who lets him on the “everyone wins” secret.

I asked my boys what they thought about the “trying trophy” and they said that they both liked it.  My older one added, “But you really don’t learn how to compete with those.  Once you get older, you need to know how you’re really doing.”

It’s an interesting point, as there’s that fine line as a parent, a teacher, or a coach between being supportive and being realistic.  It reminded me of this great blog from Rochester Supporting Advanced and Gifted Education (SAGE) about the importance of failure for our kids.  As a supporter of “win-win” scenarios and conflict partnership, it was an important reminder for me as a parent, and a great discussion to have with my kid about being their biggest fan, but wanting to be honest with them about what I see and continuing to push them to be better.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
Well, I can say that I really disliked the first one, but found the second a marked improvement.  It toned-down the sometimes mean-spirited tone of the books, and gave Greg a real story arc while I believe staying true enough to the feel of the book.

My understanding is that the third one is going to borrow heavily from both The Last Straw and Dog Days, even though it is using the latter title for the film.  It would be hard for me to believe that Greg’s character isn’t going to regress at least a bit, which would not be uncommon for anyone, as one selfless moment does not necessarily lead to a complete life change.

That said, in the second movie, he “got the girl” by being kind, selfless, and willing to take a risk and make a fool out of himself.  I’m curious to see how much if at all they’ll be willing to carry that over.  I can see from the casting that Holly’s big sister will be a part of the movie, and there are a number of directions they can take that relationship.

The second movie also borrowed a number of bits from both the Last Straw and Dog Days books, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all if director David Bowers draws from the new books The Ugly Truth and Cabin Fever to help round out the plot.

Overall I thought the casting and acting was quite good for these films, taking them for what they are.  I am a big fan of Steve Zahn, who plays Greg’s Dad.  He’s made a lot of crap over the years, but I still think he’s an exceptional comic actor when given good material.

Given the improvement from the first to the second film, I’m (very) cautiously optimistic that this one will at least be tolerable, which is pretty much all I’m asking for out of it.  If it actually leads to an interesting discussion as well, I’ll take that as a bonus.

Next in this series: I’m off to see the Wizard

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One Response to “Read It Then See It: Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Last Straw & Dog Days”

  1. Marwan Says:

    I love Wimpy kid dogDays is good I like it

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