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Middle schooler Greg Heffley’s mother gives him a journal to write and draw in. Greg agrees to use the journal so there will be a record of his past when he is famous someday. Greg analyzes middle school popularity and describes the weirdos, nerds, and bullies he encounters. He tells the story of the Cheese Touch, a version of “cooties” that happens when someone touches a slice of cheese left on a basketball court. He describes his older brother, Rodrick, who plays tricks on him and plays drums in a heavy-metal band called Löded Diper; his younger brother, Manny, who gets treated like a prince and calls Greg “Bubby”; and his best friend, Rowley, with whom he shares a love of video games.
Greg tricks Rowley’s dad into letting them play violent games by hiding games in Manny’s preschool CD cases. When Greg uses headphones to listen to Rodrick’s CDs, ignoring the parental warning labels, he gets caught and punished with a video-game ban. At school, Greg decides to run for class treasurer, but his posters—which criticize his opponent—get thrown in the trash by the vice principal, and his campaign ends.
In his entries, narrator and protagonist Greg Heffley complains about receiving a diary after requesting a journal, revealing his singular focus on details and their effect on social status. The idea that a “diary” is feminine bothers Greg, an idea he’ll return to again. Greg obsesses over unraveling the mystery of what makes someone popular and fixates on his own social rank. His fear of being labeled “unpopular” inspires him to agonize over even the smallest decisions. Right away, readers know Greg values what others, especially his classmates, think of him. Ironically, the traits that make Greg a target of bullies are out of his control. One of the smaller boys in his school, Greg becomes a target of bullies for his size. At home, Greg’s older brother Rodrick bullies him simply because he’s younger. The theme of bullying continues as Greg runs for class treasurer. In a first of several role reversals, Greg’s smear campaign against his opponent turns Greg into the bully.