Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Just a Bad Idea

While reading Diary of Wimpy Kid, I was reminded of the way Bryson points out arbitrary social conventions by focusing on them to the point of ridiculousness. It isn’t really Greg, Rowley, or their families at the center of the narrative, but the ridiculous situations they find themselves in due to social conventions. In Kinney’s exaggerated and more na├»ve world of a stereotypical middle school, these conventions are everything. People get ranked on popularity lists. Yearbook superlatives are something to strive for. The “cheese touch” or similar situations can lead to total social isolation. Even after school, Greg is plagued by the abuse of power imbalances from his older brother and gangs of teenagers. In Greg’s world, taking advantage of any edge you can get is the norm. Greg realizes just how arbitrary most of the social conventions of middle school are when he ends up with the dreaded cheese touch and realizes that just spending time with his also not-so-popular friend isn’t too terrible of a fate at all.

            I happen to agree very much with Greg Heffley when he says middle school is a bad idea. My memories of middle school involve groups of girls in bright Juicy Couture sweat suits and Uggs. I was neither cool enough for them or athletic enough to play kickball with the boys. My school had just transitioned from being and elementary to school to K-8, so there were no lockers and I carried a giant backpack everyday, on which I blame my current terrible posture. Average intelligence and minimal effort was considered extraordinary in comparison to the apathy that many students displayed. We had frequent assemblies addressing class behavior issues. Anti-bullying and nutrition campaigns, though noble in their efforts, fell flat in their effectiveness. There was still bullying and people still had potato chips and candy at lunchtime. There were sometimes dances DURING THE SCHOOL DAY, in which we were all rallied into the school gym and shamed into participating as teachers stared from the sidelines. Any class would be preferred to that. To top it all off, the cringe-inducing Twilight series was all the rage. 

Slow Down and LOL

Reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid gave me flash backs to my Middle School days *shivers.* This book came out when I was transitioning from 5th grade to 6th grade and it quickly became a hit at my school. While I had no desire to read the book, I was a sucker for peer pressure so I read it in a night then carried it around a little at school to help my image. Today I am fortunate enough to have this book cross into my life for a second time, but now I get to poke and prod at it then write about what makes me laugh. I specifically remember my love for the cartoons from the first go-round, so I decided to focus on them this time.
Last week we spent a great deal of time discussing Kalman’s use of images and hand written text. We concluded that her images and her comments force the reader to slow down and meditate on each moment. I found that the images in Diary of Wimpy Kid function in a similar manner. These images resemble cartoons, but unlike cartoons they are set up by text. This text-image relationship not only captures the attention of a young reader, it forces the young reader to stop, walk through the image, then make sense of it. When the reader does this they temporary live in the image and experience what Greg is experiencing. For instance, when Greg flashes back to the prank that Rodrick played on him during the middle of the night, there is an image of the dad screaming at Greg for “eating cheerios at 3:00 in the morning” then there is an image of the dad looking at Rodrick who is fast asleep. When we study these images, we can picture the startling confusion that Gregory felt and we can feel the awkwardness of the situation when the dad sees Rodrick asleep. It is very hard for text alone to reach this outcome because text essentially tells the reader what to think or imagine. Images, however, have holes that the reader can fill with their own experiences or knowledge. These images brought back memories of all the pranks that my older brother played on me when we were younger. Since I have experienced the confusion and frustration that comes with being the prankee, I was able to insert these feelings into Greg’s situation and make it my own. When I did this, I lingered over Greg's situation for an extra moment and even though that moment was only a second, I was able to fully process how funny the situation was. 

The Underdog and You!

            One of the most reliable tools in the trade of storytelling is empathy, and it is for this reason that the underdog is among the most popular character types. A loser; a nerd; a wimp.
There’s something about this character that inspires something within his audience. We want to see the underdog succeed because it proves that we, too, can persevere.
            Jeff Kinney’s underdog becomes the narrator in his Diary of a Wimpy Kid and from the get go the reader can infer what type of story this will be. It is comedy in its full embodiment: a protagonist on the bottom rung of social standing finds himself in trying situations in which at times he comes out successful, but most times not.
            The great thing about the loser is that he can lose and not be broken by the loss. He hardly comes out on top, but when he does it’s in a big way. One thing the underdog excels at is losing after he’s already won. Like when Greg and Rowley escape the teenagers on Halloween only to be drenched by a trashcan full of water. You take the wins with the losses and move on to the next challenge, is the message this book drives home to its young reader audience.
            Failure isn’t really the word for it. Greg attributes his errors and mistakes as lessons to be learnt. Because, can a child truly fail in the eyes of the American zeitgeist? Kids can do the zaniest, craziest things and get away with it because they are children and lack the mental facilities to know better. Except, Greg thinks he knows everything. That’s one of the most endearing qualities of a kid, but it can get annoying to a non-youth reader. When Greg lets Rowley take the blame for the worms, we think come on that’s not right but Greg only feels remorse upon being served his consequences. Here’s where a certain disconnect occurs between intended and non-intended audiences. This is YA literature at the end of the day, and we are observing it exclusively from a humoristic stance. What is significant to take away from this book, in terms of our class, is the tropes and types of characters highlighted.
This is an episodic story. There is no central plot that runs throughout the story. It is simply a year in the life of a wimp. There is some nice resolution when it comes to the cheese that slaps a moldy bow on the whole book, but for the most part Greg lives like his central reader lives: day by day in the blur of youth. The story doesn’t end just because the book does, which is especially true considering how this is part of a series. The situations change but the characters remain largely static; unchanging in the limbo contained between the wide ruled notebook paper.


A Child's Christmas Nightmare

Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a narrative written like a child’s journal. Greg Heffley’s diary tells the tale of your ordinary video game crazed adolescent trying to survive the worst establishment known to man, Middle School. The book touches all sorts of activities and experiences everyone remembers as a kid. Kinney does a great job relating to middle schoolers reading the book as well as sparking nostalgia in some of the older readers. I remember grabbing diary of a wimpy kid during the scholastic book fair (the greatest thing ever) and talking about it with my fellow classmates who also decided to take the picture book route.

I believe the humor in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid comes from its relatability or nostalgia mixed with a little bit of absurdity, as well as the satire and irony. For example, Greg runs through a sprinkler, just so his dad thought he was sweaty from playing outside (27).  And Rowley’s mom added safety “improvements” to his Halloween costume by cutting a bigger hole in the helmet, covered him in reflective tape, and replaced his sword with a glow stick (65). This is funny because, we’ve all been forced outside by our parents, and we’ve all had a friend with overprotective parents. Going to the extent of running through a sprinkler so your dad doesn’t think you’ve been playing videogames all day is a little much and the glow stick is just hilarious.

There is also a lot of irony in the Diary. Greg is often unaware that he has done something wrong, because he is just an adolescent child. When Greg decides to get serious about weight lifting, him and Rowley start using their own make shift barbell. Rowley is up first and Greg decides to put a funny mask on to test if Rowley is as serious as weight lifting as he is. Obviously, Rowley loses focus, and Greg puts off helping him lift the bar (broom) because he is not serious enough about getting in shape. Greg was the one goofing off and was basically just avoiding exercising. Greg does the same thing during the worm incident when he blames Rowley for chasing home the kindergarteners. When Rowley tells the truth Greg says, “I need to remember to give my friend a lecture about loyalty” (187).

My favorite section was the Christmas section. Everyone has been through a few unsatisfying Christmases. It meant so much what you got as a little kid, but now presents don’t seem to matter. I remember all my brothers and I were past the point of freaking out on Christmas except for my little brother Ryan. While all of us got a few nice gifts, Ryan got everything on his list, but he couldn’t find the one big present he asked for. It turns out my parents left that present wrapped in their room, so when my mom went to get it. When she returned, my little brother was in tears cursing all of the presents he had gotten only to be soothed by another ginormous present.

Middle School Humor

           Diary of a Wimpy Kid was a staple of my time in elementary school, hopefully not because it was relatable to me, but that was honestly quite a real possibility. In his book, which provides a rather accurate description of the absurdities of middle school, Jeff Kinney is able to make topics relevant to only middle schoolers, somewhat humorous to even college students, even though we are clearly not the intended audience. While Kinney does not use the specific theories as much as some of the other writers that we have read this year, he does play with scale on quite a few occasions. When discussing the fact that the kid with the “cheese touch” had moved to California, Greg, the main character, says “I just hope someone doesn’t start the Cheese Touch up again, because I don’t need that kind of stress in my life anymore” (Kinney, 10). The idea that the most stressful part of a person’s is trying to avoid a person who had touched a piece of rancid cheese is hilarious because there are so many more things to be stressed about, like the 4 term papers you have to write, or the inevitability of death, which when it comes down to it, probably feel rather similar. The main character acts exactly the way you would expect a middle school child to. Everything that they have to worry about is the most important thing in the world, these kids have, no sense of scale, but by showing this, Kinney is playing with scale by inflating just how stressful this event is.

            The humor in Kinney’s book is also rather observational. Greg seems to many times simply be making commentary about the world around of him. Most of these seem to involved his inability to relate with the people around him, or the fact that some of the kids just seem to be really, fantastically stupid, or at least that’s how they are portrayed. The first time this is really shown to the reader is when Greg is discussing his reading group and he mentions how he “saw a couple of the ‘Bink Says Boo’ kids holding their books upside down, and I don’t think they were joking” (Kinney, 16) which is, in all honesty, a hilarious image to imagine someone trying to seriously read a book upside down. It is also something that happens to everyone from time to time. I know that there have been times that I have opened up a book upside down, and it took me a slightly embarrassingly long amount of time to realize my mistake. Another instance of this observational type of humor comes from Greg describing his group for independent study. His biggest apprehension comes from a kid named Ricky whose “big claim to fame is that he’ll pick the gum off the bottom of a desk and chew it if you pay him fifty cents. So I don’t really have high hopes for our final grades” (Kinney, 146). Everyone throughout their academic careers has at one point or another dreaded the idea of having to do group work, and everyone has run into a character similar to this Ricky, the one who you just know will absolutely ruin your chances at a good grade. This also brings up the final reason that Kinney’s humor is successful, its honestly rather relatable. Most of the humor deals with really simple and common things that people are going to have to go through, or remember going through. Everyone remembers their strained relationship with their parents during middle school, and the importance everyone placed on being “cool” or “popular”, or having to deal with their siblings or their friends when they were being annoying. Unlike Kalman’s work from last week, Kinney’s humor is not niche by any stretch of the imagination, rather it is so common that at some point everyone will be able to relate to it. There is also the fact that Kinney is not trying to paint some sort of obscure and idiosyncratic portrait of how he views the world, but rather he is simply trying to provide a relatable character who is struggling with the things that everyone had to deal with during middle school. I believe that is where Kinney’s success as a writer came from, and despite the fact that he has to use simple language, and cannot really make any sort of sophisticated jokes, he can still play with the scale of things, make use of observational humor, and employ irony throughout the entire work and still have success.  

Monday, April 10, 2017

Reliability, Absurdity, and School Theater

My affair with acting in theater in high school was brief and tragic. I usually worked costumes and props with my friend Lauren for every performance, which was a great gig. All we did was sit around backstage talking to our friends in the cast and coerce the middleschoolers running the snack bar into giving us free sodas, while occasionally moving a chair or zipping up a dress. My high school was an all-girls school, too, so we usually got to have fun forcing our theater-nerd friends into fake beards and painting on wild eyebrows with eyeshadow, too. But the fall of my senior year we did Wizard of Oz and I was struck with thespian inspiration—either that, or “senioritis” madness—and I auditioned.
I was double-casted in the incredibly prestigious roles of Foremost General—a man who, I quickly decided, was a hard-headed and tough-as-nails vet of the Oz Army—and Flying Monkey. I was a little offended at the casting of the second one, because I was not the only flying monkey and yet I wasn’t even offered a number to my title. Was I Flying Monkey #1? Flying Monkey #2? #3? How was I supposed to properly inhabit the character I was given, properly understand his motivations, if I wasn’t even awarded a status ranking? (In retrospect, my Flying Monkey character should’ve been undergoing a crisis of faith or something.)
My situation wasn’t nearly as bad as my friend Tori’s, though my costume was. (That semester I would become intimately acquainted with cheap faux-fur felt and smelled like under hot stage lighting.) She had, in a sort of ironic joke, auditioned for the role of Toto; that is to say, she knelt down onstage and barked during the auditions. Apparently our theater director must’ve thought she barked really well, because she got the role and a specially-ordered fuzzy suit, which looked as though it had been sewn together after a successful raid on a grey sheep farm. The novelty, if had ever been there, wore off after a week of crawling around the hardwood stage on her knees and barking every time Dorothy patted her on the head. It didn’t wear off for the rest of us, though—we called her Totori through graduation.
The rest of the show, as you might imagine, passed in typical high school theater style: pitchy vocals, scenery malfunctions, me getting trapped in my monkey costume, and the Wicked Witch falling off a riser when she was attempting to melt. So when I read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the disastrous Wizard of Oz production spoke a little too close to home for me—though his was technically middle school as compared to my high school, the experience was something I could relate to all too well. Even, unfortunately, the child who was forced to wear the Toto costume. I think this is one of the reasons why Kinney’s sense of humor is so effective (and effective enough to inspire at least nine other books in the Wimpy Kid series). A lot of what Greg goes through are universal experiences that everyone in school and/or adolescence goes through. Bullies, annoying siblings, and even terrible musical productions are fairly universal—and universality and relatability, as we’ve discussed, do play a big part in humor.

Aside from this, and my Wizard of Oz connection with Greg, there’s an interesting absurd factor of Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s sense of humor that the illustrations add. They almost always present information that’s at-odds with Greg’s narration, or show the truth despite Greg’s wild understatement. When he and Rowley are lifting weights, for example, Greg doesn’t seem to realize that Rowley is clearly struggling to breathe under the makeshift barbell; his illustration of the event, however, shows that he must be somewhat aware. Likewise when he is pretending to have a cast. He claims he got it from a terrible infection from a splinter and that he can’t understand why people don’t want to sign his cast, but the illustration—girls clearly being disgusted by his “infection”—suggests he really does know. While this probably suggests that Greg is clearly an unreliable narrator, they seem to be more for the audience/reader’s amusement: we know what’s really happening even though Greg doesn’t or is pretending not to, and it sort of becomes an inside joke between author and reader.

Humor for Children?

            Reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid reminded me of watching the YouTube video about the little boy on Ellen that I had showed earlier this semester.  A big part of the humor is based on the fact that Greg thinks he is so mature and knowledgeable, comparing himself to not only his peers, but the adults in his life as well.  I couldn’t help but laugh as he wrote things like, “I’m sure Dad thinks I’ve got a screw loose or something” (13).  As I was considering this, I noticed that this is written primarily as a children’s book, and realized the average child would not understand how his “maturity” is humorous.  As a matter of fact, they would probably take it just as seriously and agree that he is smarter than the adults and other kids in his life.
            Unlike me reading it from the perspective of a college student (and adult, I guess), children would find the entertainment and humor in the comical drawings and relatable aspects of middle school, like the cheese touch and being forced to participate in the school play.  They would enjoy reading about how Greg avoided his punishments by going to Rowley’s house and took advantage of the role of Safety Patrol.

            Overall, I believe Kinney works with humor in two different ways in Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  In one way, he uses the ignorant innocence of children to amuse adults and make them laugh, while writing specifically for children.  He continues to make the children laugh as he explores the daily life of Greg and all the trouble and humor that comes with it.