Wimpy Kid Read-Alikes

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The most popular series in my school library was Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The copies would come back tattered, stained and well loved. They passed from hand to hand before I had time to check them in and out again. Many parents asked me to recommend a similar series so they could get their kids to read something – anything! – other than a Wimpy Kid book. I think it’s pretty wonderful that Jeff Kinney created a series to hook the most reluctant of readers, and I’m always happy to suggest titles that kids can move to next.

There are the three elements in the Wimpy Kid books that I believe make them so popular:

  • Humor
  • Realistic (usually cringe-worthy) life events
  • Hand drawn illustrations/cartoons

The following books have the trifecta: humor, realistic tween problems, and cartoon illustrations. I listed the series title first (if there was one) followed by the title of the first book in the series:

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  1. My Life Series: My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian — Twelve year-old Derek Fallon is crushed when he has to spend his summer at “Learning Camp.” Reluctant readers will particularly identify with Derek, and all readers will enjoy his adventures and sympathize with his humiliations. I feel like this series has a little more depth and heart than Wimpy Kid and highly recommend it.

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  2. Tom Gates: The Brilliant World of Tom Gates by L. Pichon — Tom Gates is a British version of Greg Heffley. You’ll find the same humor about school and home life. A glossary at the end helps readers understand some of the British terminology. In my library, this series was a huge hit with Wimpy Kid fans.

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  3. Popularity Papers: Research for the Social Improvement and General Betterment of Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang by Amy Ignatow  — This journal format series chronicles the adventures of best friends Lydia and Julie as they attempt to uncover the formula for popularity. I think boys would love this series just as much as girls if they would give it a shot. It really bothers me that boys have been socialized to resist “girl” books, and I encourage parents to buy the book and cover it with a brown paper bag. Maybe then little dudes will be comfortable reading it.

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  4. Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life by Rachel Renee Russell — I have to admit, I have not read this series myself. The reviews are mixed, with some saying the main character Nikki Maxwell doesn’t show enough growth over the course of the story. I included it because it’s hugely popular with female reluctant readers. I think it’s worth it for parents to check it out and see what they think.

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  5. Origami Yoda: The Strange Case of Origami Yoga by Tom Angleberger — Dwight, an odd kid in the sixth grade, starts making accurate predictions for his classmates by speaking through a finger puppet shaped like Yoda. This offbeat concept yields hilarious results and realistic portrayals of tween angst. Interestingly, Angleberger is the husband of the author/illustrator of book #6…

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    cover of the novel El Deafo

  6. El Deafo by Cece Bell — This memoir follows Cece Bell through her childhood as she adjusts to becoming deaf after a bout of meningitis. Reluctant readers will love the graphic novel format and Bell’s humorous take on her life-altering situation. Adults will appreciate the fact that the book has something important to say. I wrote more about the book here.

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  7. Charlie Joe Jackson: Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading by Tommy Greenwald — The title says it all. Charlie will go to great lengths to make sure he doesn’t have to complete a reading assignment. Hilarity ensures and reluctant readers will love him.

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  8.  Big Nate: In a Class by Himself by Lincoln Peirce — Big Nate is another series that flies off library shelves. Like many of the main characters in this list, Nate is a ne’er-do-well who can’t seem to get a break. Big Nate is heavy enough on the humor and illustrations to hook reluctant readers.

I know many parents hope to get their children to read something more challenging than Wimpy Kid. Please note that this is not the purpose of my list. These are read-alikes to keep kids reading, especially kids who aren’t always thrilled to pick up a book. I like to tell people that I spent junior high reading every book in the Sweet Valley High series. I went on to become an English major, a librarian, and an appreciator of great literature (as well as seriously low brow books). I believe that it’s important to make reading a pleasurable experience for children. The hope is that this will lead them to more substantial literature and lifelong reading habits.

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El Deafo and the Triumph of Graphic Novels

cover of the novel El Deafo

Every so often, a student will tell me that his (it’s usually a boy) mom has put the kibosh on graphic novels. “I’m not allowed to check out any more comics,” he’ll say, wandering aimlessly off into the chapter book section. *Womp womp* I nod and smile sympathetically, but inside I’m wondering what we are doing to our kids’ love of reading by telling them their choices are a waste of time?

I know graphic novels can be what I call a gateway drug to other books because parents have told me so. In fact, today I approached the mom of a reluctant reader about the two Wimpy Kid books from the school library (ahem) that her son accidentally left in a foreign country. Yeah, I won’t be seeing those books again. But let’s focus on what she told me: once he found the Wimpy Kid series, she didn’t have to nag him to read anymore! He even came to the library today wanting to check out more books–score one for reading! I have heard similar comments from parents about the Big Nate series. I’m not sure everyone considers Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Big Nate to be true graphic novels, but let’s not quibble over details. Kids are reading, people. This is good stuff.

The thing is, graphic novels are not just a way to get kids reading. Just like any genre, there is some great literature being written in this form. In graduate school, I was assigned American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and this book blew my mind with its interwoven storylines and takedown of prejudice both subtle and obvious. I just finished reading another masterpiece in graphic novel form: El Deafo by Cece Bell. I have no idea why Bell decided to draw her human characters as rabbit-like creatures when the book is basically an autobiography, but it works. We follow Cece as she is diagnosed with meningitis as a small child and survives the disease only to find her hearing permanently damaged.

Young Cece’s experiences resonate because they are familiar in many respects: moving to a new town, bossy friends, unrequited crushes, and a general feeling that you are different and weird. Cece, however, is navigating these waters with the added complication of her disability. At school, she must wear Sonic Ear, a cumbersome sound amplifier, on her chest. Her humiliation at wearing this device is tempered when she realizes she has the superability to hear her teacher’s voice from anywhere in the school (even the restroom–heehee). Much of Cece’s social isolation results from her inability to participate in activities that make lip-reading impossible: watching TV, listening to the radio, and whispered conversations at sleepover parties. To deal with her frustration, Cece creates an alter ego – El Deafo – who has a solution for every awkward, demeaning situation she encounters. Bell stated in an NPR interview that she wanted readers to see the humor in her situation – the misunderstood words and the funny things that happen when you rely on equipment such as the Sonic Ear. Like Greg Heffley, Cece gets to struggle through the joy, pain and absurdity of childhood, the hero of her own story.

I challenge any adult who believes “comics” have no place in our children’s lives to read El Deafo. They will discover one of the most relatable, vulnerable, triumphant main characters in children’s literature. When did we start judging storytelling based on the number of words on the page, anyway?