It seems an unlikely formula for literary success: primitive, stick-figure cartoon illustrations combined with a main character who is comically hapless and self-centered.
But it's a formula that has worked like a charm for Jeff Kinney, author and illustrator of the best-selling kids' series "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." More than 75 million copies of the first six books have been sold, and the series is available in 41 languages in 44 countries.
Mr. Kinney has just published his seventh "Wimpy Kid" book, "The Third Wheel" (Amulet, $13.95, ages 8-12). With a 6.5 million copy first printing, it's the biggest print release of the year among both kids and adult books. ("The Third Wheel" is being simultaneously released as an e-book; The other six books in the series were released as e-books in October.)
In his newest book, Mr. Kinney again demonstrates his masterful ability to tease out the humor in the everyday drama of middle school life. As a result, "The Third Wheel" is both laugh-out-loud funny and an intriguing window into the emotional world of middle-schoolers.
Like all of the other "Wimpy Kid" books, "The Third Wheel" is told in highly illustrated journal entries purportedly written by Greg Hefley, a middle school student who also is the middle of his family's three boys. Greg is an antihero: He's lazy, manipulative and generally luckless when it comes to getting what he wants -- all qualities that Mr. Kinney deftly highlights to their comical extreme.
In "The Third Wheel," Greg wants to bring a date to the Valentine's Dance at his middle school. But convincing a girl -- just about any girl -- to accept his invitation proves more difficult than Greg imagined, and he learns the hard way exactly what it means to be a "third wheel."
To this simple main plot, Mr. Kinney adds multiple humorous subplots. One focuses on the less-than-heralded arrival of Greg's shiftless Uncle Gary, who takes up residence in the Hefley household, sleeping on the living-room sofa while he waits to strike it rich in the lottery.
Another hilarious subplot details the effort by Greg and other students to supply better toilet paper for the school bathrooms and Greg's wacky idea to hide his toilet paper stash in a locked boys' room stall.
As in all of the other "Wimpy Kid" books, Mr. Kinney includes at least one cartoon illustration -- more often two -- on each page. They serve to either underline the humor in the text or add more comedy.
While series such as "Captain Underpants" and "The Magic School Bus" also offer readers a mix of text and illustrations, the "Wimpy Kid" novels have brought these "hybrid" books to a new level of popularity.
Since the publication of the first "Wimpy Kid" book in 2007, numerous other hybrid series have been published, including the "Origami Yoda" books, "The Dork Diaries," the "Big Nate" books and the "Popularity Papers."
Here's a brief look at two other great new "hybrid" books:
• Ginny Davis is excited about finally becoming an eighth-grader. But then her life turns upside down: Her family moves, her mother has a new baby, her older brother is becoming a juvenile delinquent and her stepfather has lost his job. It's a lot to handle, and Ginny finds that the stress is making her physically ill.
In "Eighth Grade Is Making Me Sick" (Random House, $15.99, ages 8-12), author Jennifer Holm and illustrator Elicia Castaldi tell the story of Ginny's year through "stuff." Each page contains something such as a Post-it note, a letter, a school assignment, a bill, an email or one of Ginny's poems that serves to tell her story.
In this sequel to "Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf," Ms. Holm and Ms. Castaldi once again offer readers a poignant, realistic story told in an unconventional way.
• Rob has a problem: Weird creatures are suddenly coming to life in his closet. First there was Wonkenstein, a cross between Frankenstein and the chocolate-loving Willy Wonka. Rob detailed his adventures with Wonkenstein in the first volume of "The Creature From My Closet" series, written and illustrated by Obert Skye.
Wonkenstein disappeared at the end of that book, but now another creature has emerged from Rob's closet. In "Potterwookie" (Henry Holt, $12.99, ages 8-12), Mr. Skye tells what happens when a creature that is a cross between Harry Potter and Chewbacca the Wookiee from "Star Wars" tries to help Rob win a cooking contest.
As in the first "Creature" book, Mr. Skye's droll, zany text is complemented by crude drawings that further boost the humor quotient.
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.