Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw

Posted by on December 14th, 2009 at 10:00 AM

Jeff Kinney; Amulet Books; 218 pp., $12.95; B&W; Hardcover; ISBN: 9780810970687

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Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books are among the best-selling comics — or, for the pedantic, comics/text hybrids — in America.  Like the similarly popular Captain Underpants series, the books combine prose narrative with cartoon illustrations and dialogue.

Like the previous Wimpy Kid books, The Last Straw is the diary of Greg Heffley, a middle-schooler who isn’t quite at the bottom of the social pecking order, but isn’t in any danger of nearing the top.  He pals around with his even more hopeless friend Rowley, schemes to impress girls, and tries to keep a low profile.  At home, he’s usually engaged in a standoff with his younger brother Manny or his older brother Rodrick, or else his parents are plotting to force some kind of self-improvement on him. (In this volume, his father signs him up for soccer, the Boy Scouts and military school after Greg starts hanging around the house in his mother’s pink bathrobe.)  Greg’s adventures are episodic, without much in the way of a larger plot, although in this volume several running plot threads tie in to the final, humiliating climax.

No one who grew up on Judy Blume is likely to be surprised by the twists and turns of Greg’s preteen suburban life, but they’re very funny in the telling, mainly because Greg himself is kind of a little bastard.  Not that he sees himself that way.  The Last Straw opens with Greg complaining that he can’t think of a New Year’s resolution because “I’m already pretty much one of the best people I know.”  He decides his resolution will be to tell other people their faults.  Greg feuds with his family, cruelly exploits Rowley, lies, cheats and rationalizes every underhanded deed.  Wimpiness is not even his most outstanding negative trait.  In other words, he’s a character kids can relate to.

The cartoon illustrations usually add a joke or comment ironically on the text.  When Greg’s soccer team loses a game, for instance, Greg writes, “Somehow the other team got the ball past me in the last few seconds.”  An illustration tells the full story: Greg sitting in the grass blowing dandelion seeds as the ball rockets by.  The illustrations are extremely simple — they’re supposed to be drawn by Greg, after all — but have the flat precision of art drawn by computer, not a real seventh-grader’s diary sketches.  They’re not visually very interesting, but as far as humor goes, they get the job done.  And sometimes Kinney’s artistic limitations make the gag funnier, as when Greg tries to visually express why, as a small child, he was frightened by the photo of Shel Silverstein on the back of The Giving Tree.  This leads to the dire warning: “If you get out of bed tonight, you’ll probably run into Shel Silverstein in the hallway.”  I think most of us have had that nightmare.

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