Remember the “Cheese Touch”?
You know what I’m talking about. It was 2011. You were nine years old. You were on the bus ride back home, settled into your assigned seat and beginning to zone out, dreaming about your 30 minutes of allotted computer time on Poptropica that night.
Suddenly, you felt a violent jab into the back of your arm. A smug-sounding classmate then shouted “Cheese Touch!” in your ear, their voice dripping with ridicule, plus an undertone of relief. “Crossies!”
Panic sets in. You turn around to view the offender, and they hold up their crossed fingers to your face to prove their immunity. The middle section of the bus explodes with laughter. You quickly search around to see everyone’s faces. They taunt you by rapidly holding up their crossed fingers, laughing. Desperate to get rid of the Cheese Touch, you scan the bus for any unsuspecting bystanders on which to pass off your deadly touch.
Remember that nightmare? Well, we have one person to thank for that. Surprisingly, we have the same person to thank for your 30 minutes of allotted time on Poptropica: Jeff Kinney.
Initially a newspaper cartoonist in college, Jeff Kinney’s comics were criticized for looking too much like those of a “seventh-grader.” Citing the Peter Principle, Kinney decided to lean into his (perceived lack of) style. Now, Kinney is the author of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” one of the world’s most widely consumed children’s series, and the creator of Poptropica, the incredibly famous role-player gaming website for kids. He also owns a bookstore in Plainville, Mass., with his wife Julie. Talk about range!
Kinney’s work is far-reaching — his series can be found at any book fair. However, children’s media experts and English teachers rarely seem to hold it in high regard. In fifth grade, my favorite English teacher Mr. Jonathan bemoaned the members of our class (including me) who read “Stick-Man,” as he called it. Too often, “Wimpy Kid” is seen as too “low-brow” to engage with (without, at least, some semblance of shame). However, I disagree: I think the “Wimpy Kid” series is a masterpiece on many levels.
Let’s not put on airs: we read the book for its humor (mostly situational comedy, with a tasteful sprinkle of barf jokes). Greg, a tween assured of his own greatness, regularly tries to manipulate others, like his best friend Rowley, as well as his family, into doing his bidding. He fails a lot. Greg pretends his arm is broken to get sympathy, ridicules Rowley and concocts schemes for his crush, Holly Hills, to pay attention to him. These behaviors indicate a healthy dose of adolescent narcissism — Greg is manipulative, selfish and, honestly, kind of a jerk. However, anyone who remembers the ordeals of middle school knows what it feels like to fight their way through these grades — to tweens, this behavior might even seem normal.
“It really captures the struggle of a child that age trying to figure out what it means to be a person,” Dr. Joshua Sparrow, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, said in an interview with the New York Times. Greg definitely isn’t the best role model. He can be ridiculously terrible, yet, at times, relatable.
However, it brings the unreliable narrator trope to mind: If Greg cannot be trusted, can his storytelling? Upon further examination, Greg’s problems seem very obvious to everyone except him. His accounts of constant jealousy of his younger brother, Manny (who represents everything Greg hopes to be), his desperation to play the victim when speaking to his older brother, Rodrick (who really didn’t do much wrong) and his constant dismissal of both Rowley and his mother (who make efforts to bond with him) feel one-sided. Greg, trapped in a prison of his own mind where he tries and fails to manipulate others, would do well to care about those around him. Maybe, were he to gain empathy for the people in his life, Greg’s never-ending cycle of manipulation would end, and he would finally graduate middle school. Kinney’s characterization of Greg feels simple and complex at the same time.
In elementary school, I ran to the Scholastic Book Fair during lunch to read the latest release. Today, “Wimpy Kid” still enthralls kids. It’s rare not to see a Wimpy Kid book at the top of the Children’s Bestseller List. Jeff Kinney might not be a household name, but Greg Heffley certainly is.
Less people know about Kinney’s involvement with Poptropica, launched in 2007, the same year the first “Wimpy Kid” was published in print. Many people are surprised to find out Kinney is the developer and creative director, despite spending countless hours on the website in their childhood. If “Wimpy Kid” feels like the continuation of one long story, Poptropica is the opposite: users jump from island to island, each containing its own interactive story that involves a quest, many of which are written by Kinney.
Poptropica’s iconic character design, for which characters’ faces are sideways ellipses, with large blinking eyes, one slightly larger than the other depending on which way the camera is facing, is recognizable anywhere. Poptropica continues to live in a nostalgic class of online media for many late millennials and early Gen-Zers, alongside websites like Webkinz and Club Penguin. In the ultimate super-mega nostalgia-extreme crossover of the decade, Kinney even created two “Wimpy Kid” islands within Poptropica, with storylines based on helping Greg babysit Manny and other cool, fun stuff.
I have many fond memories of playing Poptropica, specifically the Greek Mythology island which coincided with one of my other childhood interests: the children’s book series “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” written by Rick Riordan, with whom Kinney happens to be friends. It took me two years (and a lot of online tutorials) to get past the Underworld in Greek Mythology Island — this is not something I admit freely. Embarrassingly, over quarantine, I’ve started playing Poptropica again, and I’m still struggling with completing many of the quests.
Kinney’s work isn’t without its faults. One wonders if Kinney has anything to gain artistically from continuing to publish seemingly indiscernible stories of Greg. Additionally, no one can forget Chirag Gupta (personally, my self-insert character), the only person of color in his books, who was literally gaslighted into believing he was invisible and then deaf (I can’t make this up). Despite these flaws, Kinney’s varied body of work somehow has a kiddish, comfortable charm to it — it feels safe.
To discuss the topic of evolution, it’s essential to note Kinney’s relative consistency after creating Poptropica. Kinney has been publishing the “Wimpy Kid” series since 2007 — of which there are 15 books (Yes! 15!). Greg and company have stayed in the same suburban middle school for 14 years now. In Poptropica, while new islands and an app have been released, the overall feel has stayed the same. In an extremely short period, Kinney went through an intense multimedia ideation period that spawned cultural touchstones. Since then, Kinney hasn’t created any new franchises; with two long-lived, financially lucrative projects, he stays busy.
However, to call him stagnant would be unfair. Within his established projects, he continues to expand worlds familiar to us. He’s created new story-based islands in Poptropica. He’s made a Rowley spin-off series within the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” universe. It seems to be what Kinney does best as an artist: create an immersive world that is untouched by the passage of time, and flesh it out for years to come.
Daily Arts Contributor Meera Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.