The best school assignments (in my opinion) also make for great blog posts. For my Science Fiction and Fantasy course, we were tasked to choose a book and argue why it was either fantasy or science fiction. While I could have made things easy for myself and picked a book on our syllabus, I decided to have a little fun with things, and instead picked something that it might be harder to make an argument for, but also something that I’d been thinking about anyways.
So without further ado, here’s my paper
Anything but your average middle schooler: Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s descent into fantasy
Greg Heffley is a wimpy kid; he might also be a timeless eldritch god. For over a decade, Greg has remained stuck in middle school narrating the events of his life through a journal in the 15-book series, Diary of Wimpy Kid. Greg says he writes in the journal his mom gave him because, “I figure later on when I’m rich and famous, I’ll have better things to do than answer people’s stupid questions all day long, so this book is going to come in handy” (Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2). Diary of a Wimpy Kid is widely regarded as realism, and the diary format seems to reinforce its part in the realistic tradition. Andrea Schwenke Wylie points out that diaries and journals are one example of the immediate engaging first-person narration that is a staple in realistic fiction for children (186-187). However, Kinney’s series challenges genre assumptions as it transitions from ostensibly realist to fantastical over the course of the series. Diary of a Wimpy Kid invokes fantasy through imagination and illustration, enters a time paradox, and reveals its fantasy nature in a moment of self-awareness.
Greg narrates his experiences as weak, scrawny white kid in the sixth grade in the initial volume of the series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The book embraces realism as the art and the text exist in clear relation to one another. When Greg discusses something that occurs in his imagination, he provides context for the accompanying illustrations so they are not taken at face value. When considering a run for student government, Greg says “when I started thinking about it, getting elected as Treasurer could TOTALLY change my situation at school” (44). The following illustrations show how Greg imagines the situation playing out.
Because Greg clearly indicates that he is thinking about how becoming treasurer could impact his popularity, these illustrations are directly connected to Greg’s imagination rather than presented as the truth. While there is a clear demarcation between imagination and reality, these illustrations and others like them still evoke fantasy. Rather than utilizing traditional tropes associated with fantasy, Kinney leans into the definition of fantasy that is linked to the imagination: “the power or process of creating especially unrealistic or improbably mental images in response to psychological need” (“Fantasy”). Deirdre Baker points out that 21st century fantasy literature is “distinctive for its abundant visual imagery” (79), and by linking Greg’s fantasies more to the illustrations than the text, Kinney embraces the tradition of visual imagery while also drawing upon a Tolkienian definition of fantasy that links the imagination with unreality (Baker 83). While the early entries in the series still appear to fall under the umbrella of realism, Kinney is priming readers to anticipate the unexpected and unrealistic illustrations that grow more common as the series progresses.
Diary of Wimpy Kid takes on a new dimension between the 8th and 10th books, Hard Luck and Old School, when the series enters a time paradox. Middle school only lasts for so long, and in the timeline of the Wimpy Kid books, Greg seemingly finishes 8th grade in Hard Luck. The 9th book, The Long Haul covers summer vacation, however, when Old School starts, Greg is back in middle school and he provides a self-aware wink to the reader when he says, “to be honest with you, it feels like I’ve been in middle school FOREVER” (15). By making Greg an eternal middle schooler, the series denies a realistic passage of time and thus moves away from realism. Time in fantasy is often associated with time-travel and time-shifts (Nikolajeva 53), however immortality and timelessness of a character are fantasy element as well. Nikolajeva points out that time-shifts are increasingly employed for “characters’ self-exploration” (54), and Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s timelessness is employed in the same way, as readers continue to see Greg’s self-exploration in middle school rather than physical growth or entering a new stage of life. As the timeline of the Wimpy Kid series shifts into a paradox, the realm of realism slips away from the text.
Once firmly entrenched in an alternate timeline, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid extended universe becomes increasingly absurd. The separation between Greg’s life and his personal fantasies becomes less clear. This is exemplified in the 15th book, The Deep End. Greg’s family is on vacation in an RV, and when there is a flash flood, their RV is carried away. It then becomes part of a bridge, the family fishes from the top of it, and everything is just…fine, despite the fact that none of what Greg describes or illustrates should be physically possible.
While Greg calls these happenings a “miracle” (216), the fantasy is compounded with a self-aware revelation in the final line of the book, where Greg thinks about how he’ll tell his best friend Rowley about the vacation and muses, “I might change a few other details here and there because you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story” (217). This line works not only to reframe the events of The Deep End, but of the entire series. While Greg is identifiable from the first book in the series as an unreliable narrator through his embellishments, his self-centeredness, and the wild illustrations of his journal, this acknowledgement makes clear that nothing can be taken for truth in Greg’s narration and that as the creator of the journal he has nearly god-like powers. This line and the absurd happenings at the end of The Deep End establishes the Wimpy Kid series as a work of fantasy where imagination and unreality meet in a time paradox, one both the narrator and the author are aware of.
Diary of the Wimpy Kid masquerades as a work of realism, yet it is the personal fantasy of a middle school student who stopped aging long ago. While fans theorize that Greg might enter high school in the forthcoming 16th installment of the series, Long Shot, that itself seems like a long shot given the patterns of fantasy through illustrations, the time paradox, and the self-awareness that has established the trajectory of the series. Diary of a Wimpy Kid has morphed from a supposedly realistic journal following an unpopular middle schooler into its final form, a fantasy where the function of time is uncertain and Greg displays unstable god-like powers in his narration.
Baker, Deidre. “Fantasy.” Keywords for Children’s Literature, edited by Philip Nel and Lissa Paul, NYU P, 2011.
“Fantasy.” Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fantasy Accessed 21 September 2021.
Kinney, Jeff. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Amulet Books, 2007.
–. The Deep End. Amulet Books, 2020.
–. Hard Luck. Amulet Books, 2013.
—. Old School. Amulet Books, 2015.
Nikolajeva, Maria. “The Development of Children’s Fantasy.” The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, Cambridge U P, 2012, pp. 50-61.
Wylie, Andrea Schwenke. “Expanding the View of First-Person Narration.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 30, no. 3, Sept. 1999, pp. 185–202. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1023/A:1022433202145.