Resorting to humor, and petty larceny
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: A Novel in Cartoons
By Jeff Kinney
Amulet, 217 pp., ages 10 and up, $12.95
How to Steal a Dog
By Barbara O'Connor
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 176 pp., ages 10-15, $16
A work of genius has more in common with its brilliant opposite than it does with a dozen dull siblings. Witness the following unlikely pair.
Author/illustrator Jeff Kinney has lived in New England since 1995. The hero of his debut novel, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," is a wise-cracking middle-class boy whose greatest problems are middle-school classmates "who need to shave twice a day," girls who ignore him, weird cheese poisoning the playground, irritating siblings. The online incarnation of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" (funbrain.com/journal/Journal.html ) already has a cult following, and there are more books on the way.
Author Barbara O'Connor is also a local girl (Duxbury ), but she was born and raised in Greenville, S.C. Her previous beautiful books prove that she is, at heart, a Southern novelist. Georgina Hayes, heroine of her newest book, "How to Steal a Dog," lives in a broken-down car in Darby, N.C., with her mother and brother, and she's driven by desperate, sad circumstance to plot her way out.
Like O'Connor's earlier heroines, Georgina is a girl with spunk -- a word that has fallen on hard times. So has Georgina's family. The novel begins with Georgina trying to hide her condition from her best friend: " I pretended like I hadn't washed my hair in the bathroom of the Texaco gas station that very morning. And I pretended like my daddy hadn't just waltzed off and left us with nothing but three rolls of quarters and a mayonnaise jar full of wadded-up dollar bills."
Georgina spots a sign offering a $500 reward for a lost dog, and has a brainstorm: "I was gonna steal me a dog." For this, she needs the help of little brother Toby, who's no good at keeping secrets and is only in third grade. He doesn't want to steal a dog. Neither does Georgina. "Half of me was thinking, Georgina, don't do this. Stealing a dog is just plain wrong. The other half of me was thinking, Georgina, you're in a bad fix and you got to do whatever it takes to get yourself out of it."
This is the stuff of great literature -- whether it's Raskolnikov wielding an ax , or Georgina holding a leash made of dirty string. One deed leads to another. Nothing goes according to plan. Georgina and Toby think they've found the right dog with the right owner, but they may have gotten less (and more) than they bargained for.
O'Connor has a great ear for voice: "Mama draped her arm around my shoulder, and I laid my head against her and wanted to be a baby again -- a baby that just cries and then gets taken care of and that's all there is to a day."
The small ways in which strangers can be kind play a part in this book, and so do the ways in which they can be unkind. There is no sentimentalizing about poverty . But one finds that generosity is not merely the province of the wealthy, and that forgiveness and hope may lie just around the next corner. "How to Steal a Dog" sputters at times but nonetheless showcases the author's authentic genius for storytelling.
"Diary of a Wimpy Kid" is charming and hilarious from the get-go. It's full of small cartoony black-and-white illustrations, irreverent humor, and an uncanny eye for the depredations and triumphs of middle-school life. "It used to be a whole lot simpler back in elementary school. The deal was, if you were the fastest runner in your class, you got all the girls." "Diary" is crammed from beginning to end with seriously weird kids (weirder even than our wimpy narrator) and riffs on video games and school contests and plays (our hero gets to be a singing tree). I laughed and winced my way through the book not once, twice, but three times. (Reluctant readers will power through it. So will their librarians.) It even comes with a handy template for thank-you notes for those great holiday gifts: "Dear Aunt Loretta: Thank you so much for the awesome pants! How did you know I wanted that for Christmas? I love the way the pants look on my legs! All my friends will be so jealous that I have my very own pants. Thank you for making this the best Christmas ever!"
Liz Rosenberg reviews children's books monthly for the Globe.