Thursday, May 5, 2011
Mrs. Heffley Regrets...
by Santosha Kuykendall
...what her son has done to the literacy movement in America. Mrs. Heffley regrets that what Harry Potter did -- make children love reading, believe in magic, and aspire to heroism -- her son is undoing. Or at least she should. I think her son might have decreased my daughter's chances of going to college by about 10%.
Some background: We were visiting my parents. They took my daughter into Malaprop's, an independent bookstore in the hippie mecca of Asheville, North Carolina, and told her to choose a book. I assumed she would be choosing between Five Ways Kids Can Save the Earth While Vacationing in Borneo and How Pagans and Wiccans Can Teach Tolerance. Or something like that. She chose Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
I am not up on children's literature like I probably should be, so thought this was the tween version of Ferdinand. I thought maybe the protagonist lived in Camden, New Jersey but didn't like to fight. It seemed like an interesting premise. I just hoped the message of non-violence would be as poignant as it had been when, as in the case of Ferdinand, it was published during the Spanish Civil War and set in a bull-ring.
For the rest of our visit with my parents, my daughter barely looked up from her book and I glowed with maternal pride. We drove back home to Upstate New York, me still glowing with pride because, every time I looked in the rear-view mirror, my daughter was reading. About non-violence.
At home, my daughter continued to read and re-read the book and all its sequels. One cold and drafty evening, I read the series, too -- mostly because my daughter had left the books near the sofa and I didn't want to leave the warmth of my fluffy throw to battle the drafts racing past our century-old window-frames.
As I read and looked at cartoony sketches, my pride faded. My daughter was choosing to live vicariously in a home inhabited by a fussy, anemic father, a semi-literate thug of an oldest son, an apathetic whiner of a middle son and a manipulative toddler boy.
The only appealing character in the book was Mrs. Heffley -- the besieged mother who tries to marry feminism and good parenting and gets nowhere with it. Her middle son, Greg Heffley, is the narrator, the diarist, the wimpy kid. He's not a pacifist. He's just the juvenile version of a craven, apolitical, amoral, materialistic jerk. If the book had been set during the Spanish Civil War, he'd have been running a bar for Franco's soldiers -- for the cash and the protection.
In the second book of the series, Mrs. Heffley starts a summer book club for her wimpy son and his friends. You wonder what she would have made of Diary of a Wimpy Kid if one of the boys had tried to pass it off as his summer literacy effort. She very reasonably vetoes books like Video Game Cheats, 3-D Sharks and a fantasy novel with a well-proportioned but half-clad women on the front cover. She vetoes the fantasy novel because she doesn't like the way it portrays women, something which causes her son Greg to privately grouse that she's being unreasonable, as he doesn't even remember there being a female character in the book.
Would Mrs. Heffley, sane and progressive as she clearly is, indeed regret the fact that she had borne and raised a son who made being a lout seem so appealing?
Actually, Mrs. Heffley never seems to regret -- although I might, if I lived her life. I might regret the fact that I had given up so much to be a mother only to raise children who were so frankly uninspiring. But she never seems to -- and I think this is part of her loopy charm.
Mrs. Heffley's a better woman than I am, but I can't help feeling a little bit smug about the fact that I'm not a Pollyanna. Mothers are pushed to be cheerleaders for our children, as well as coaches, mentors, and sensitive teachers for them. We're supposed to keep our own values in mind, but not overreact when our children have different ones. Seeing Mrs. Heffley do all that so perfectly and seeing it have so little impact on her children makes me almost proud when I think of the maternal tantrums I've thrown when family life doesn't go my way. I may not be a perfect mother, but at least I'm no Pollyanna. I think I'd have shipped the two oldest boys off to military school... and I'm a pacifist.
Santosha Kuykendall lives in Rochester, New York with her daughter (and sometimes some foster cats).