Just in time for the Christmas pressie purchasing period, I have two very different but equally engaging books for young boys on the slab today. I suppose it’s unfair to suggest they are just for boys, but the 7-11 year old boy market – notoriously tricky to engage in reading – seems to be the target audience here. What’s more, to generalise once again, there seem to be two main types of boys in that age bracket: those who like the idea of blowing things up, and those who don’t. Luckily, there’s a book here to suit either group!
The Third Wheel is the latest in the mega bestselling Diary of Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. This time around, self-defined ‘indoors type’ Greg Heffley is battling the politics of the forthcoming Valentine’s Day dance. With his trademark combination of witty cartoons and the complex insights of Greg’s inner monologue, Kinney has created a perfect addition to the series which neatly progresses the characters towards this next natural site of contested identity for the age group: romance!
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series’ success is based on several weapons in its arsenal. For starters, the text appears less dense due to the interspersed cartoon images, thus making it accessible for a range of reader abilities. It is also funny (laugh out loud funny in places!) as well as very honest about the things that trouble boys of this age. What’s more, it is liberally sprinkled with toilet humour – but nothing that it going to genuinely shock or annoy the gatekeepers between reader and story such as parents, teachers and librarians. In The Third Wheel, for example, we see the candidates for student council lobbying the teachers for better quality toilet paper across the student facilities. No one likes a harsh, scratchy square now do they? But as with any political movement, problems ensue resulting in secret stashes of toilet paper and black market situations. It is highly amusing with just the right dose of gross-out to keep readers turning pages.
One of the ‘rules’ of writing good children’s books is to keep the adults absent; literature has a long and colourful tradition of dead parents, children at boarding schools and ogre-ish step-rellies which force children to create their own narrative destinies. This is really changing in contemporary literature though, and we see the return of influential adults in the Wimpy Kids books. Greg’s Uncle Gary is a quirky addition to The Third Wheel – as the family’s token unemployed sponger who may not be setting the best of examples to the kids. Greg looks to Gary for advice on girls because “He’s been married something like four times already, so he’s an EXPERT on relationships.”
Greg’s misguided attempts to attract a Valetine’s date had me cringing; I commiserated with the school girl I once was and lamented the mother of ‘tweens I’m soon to become! The funniest thing is that no one really seems too sure why they want a date, just that everyone has to have one, and that the cool kids will always pair up with each other. Without wanting to spoil the ending, there’s a fabulous scene where Greg and his best mate Rowley are collecting a girl from her house to escort her to the dance. “The first thing I noticed was that Abigail was wearing a really poofy dress, and I knew there was no way the three of us were gonna fit in the back seat of Mr Jefferson’s car”. Poor Abigail no doubt spent weeks choosing just the right degree of ‘poof’ for her big night!
One minor criticism of this series is also evident in that quote. I realise that this is a ‘diary’ and that much of the language reflects spoken words, but I’d be happier without the repetition of abbreviations like ‘gonna’. If these books can, indeed, encourage those who wouldn’t normally read to pick up a book, and even to churn through a whole series, then they’re also providing a subliminal spelling lesson into the bargain. I’m betting there are young readers out there who already think ‘gonna’ would be a legal option in Scrabble.
Andy Roid and the Turbine Runaways by Felice Arena is the latest in another series featuring a very different protagonist. Andy Roid is no wide-eyed school boy: he’s the kind of kid Greg Heffley would be if he had a spare million dollars to spend on surgery. Part boy, part machine Andy is living every kid’s fantasy in a life filled with intrigue and action. He’s not sure who his parents really are or why those pesky scientists are always following him. He has a laser-gun finger, a touch-screen palm and bionic legs. Awwwwesome.
Both series have attracted press about being helpful for ‘reluctant readers’, and I can see that both authors make the most of simple, but not simplistic, language and short, sharp sentences. With Andy Roid, in particular, as a sort of junior James Bond, there is no time for readers to get bored! For advanced – or just keen – readers though, these are the sorts of books which can be devoured in one night and collected like swap cards. They are great for teaching reading, but also for self-development: as farfetched as Andy’s story may be, he is still a thirteen year old boy trying to make his way in the world, with many of the usual insecurities and learning curves.
My children are way outside the demographic for these novels, but reading them for myself, I found each completely absorbing in its own way. A literate adult can knock one of these over in about 37 minutes, so if you’re considering picking one up as a gift, allow yourself the pleasure of a walk in a young reader’s shoes. You’ll enjoy the ride.
Andy Roid and the Turbine Runaways by Felice Arena and The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney are published by Penguin and I thank them kindly for my copies.