It's been three years since Greg Heffley self-consciously entered middle school in "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," with misguided attempts to fit in among the "gorillas who need to shave twice a day" and the girls who didn't even know he existed. Four books, 37 million copies and one hit movie later, Greg is back and as desperate as ever in "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth," the latest in Jeff Kinney's comedic series that can be found in the bedrooms of most third-grade boys.
"The Ugly Truth" picks up on the theme that kicked off the series in 2007: Greg's ex-friendship with the portly, innocent Rowley. Rowley, an only child whose parents have coddled him, has spent the summer with a new best friend that his mom and dad hired through a mentor rental service. And Greg, with just a couple days left before school restarts, is considering his options for a substitute friend who could cushion his discomfort at being 52nd most popular in class.
It's slim pickings. There's Christopher Brownfield, whom Greg befriended over the summer only because the boy was such an effective mosquito magnet, and Tyson Sanders, who pulls his pants down too far when using the urinal. Greg decides it's better to fly solo than to risk his already shaky social standing.
Where previous "Diary" books derived much of their humor from Greg's dysfunctional family and his aspirations to become popular, "The Ugly Truth" adds another element. It draws much of its comic value from one of the most mortifying happenings in middle school: the morphing of young male bodies into pubescent men.
Greg is forced to attend Advanced Health class and to take showers in gym class — two things he attempts to avoid in the same manipulative fashion he honed in the series' previous books. The horror of tweendom only compounds when Greg's mom leaves a stick of deodorant on his bed along with the book, "What the Heck Just Happened to My Body?"
Unlike Rowley, who sprouted his first pimple in the middle of his forehead and was rewarded with a coveted invitation to a popular kid's party, Greg is not yet showing any outward signs of manhood. He is, however, continuing his search for fame, which ends as it always has: without success. When Greg answers an ad for a new Peachy Breeze Ice Cream kid spokesperson (because the last boy is now sporting facial hair), his audition is cut short.
"When you're a kid, nobody ever warns you that you've got an expiration date. One day you're hot stuff, and the next day you're a dirt sandwich," Greg writes.
Told from Greg's point of view, "The Ugly Truth," like all previous "Diary" books, is presented in journal form on ruled paper in a font that emulates handwriting. Complementing and, in many cases, literally drawing out the action, every page has at least one pen-and-ink illustration. Many of them are accompanied by word- and thought-bubbles, making these cartoon-enhanced novels easy to read and popular with boys.
Kinney has a gift for finding tiny moments of childhood embarrassment that, to an adult, are ridiculous and ultimately have no bearing but, at the time kids are living them, take on epic, life-or-death proportions.
"The Ugly Truth" brims with uncomfortably funny and cringe-worthy situations such as Greg's transition from a pediatric dentist to oral surgeon Salazar Kagan, whose office is filled with horrific specimens of inadequate dental care, such as the rotting tooth in a jar of soda. Or the time Greg is forced to do laundry and to fold his mom's underwear. When Greg's mom decides to go back to school and leaves Greg, his dad and two brothers to make their own dinner, it ends with a visit to the emergency room.
No one said growing up was easy. In Kinney's hands, it's not only difficult but laugh-out-loud hysterical. The author plans to pen two more "Diary" books. What isn't funny is having to wait for the next one.