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:
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.