For readers of about seven-plus, Jeff Kinney’s debut Diary of A Wimpy Kid was a stand-out star, offering belly-busting hilarity and a loving, light touch take on tweenage anxiety of funny little oddity Greg Heffley. For the adults it was reminder of what it was like to be a kid. A decade and a dozen books later, Kinney, who has carved out his own distinctive niche in a rich and varied landscape of children’s books, remains a permanent fixture on bestseller charts. But he is still finding the success of the Wimpy Kid books a little unreal.
“I am very surprised because in a way the stories are very ordinary,” says Kinney, a former cartoonist. “Greg doesn’t have any magical powers; my stories are the stories of childhood.”
“I’m incredibly happy though that the books caught on all over the world. As a failed newspaper cartoonist, I don’t take the success for granted!,” adds the man behind a literary franchise that includes not just books translated into 30 languages, but merchandising and movies as well.
He was in Time magazine’s list of The World’s Most Influential People in 2009, listed as the third highest-paid author in Forbes’ 2017 list — at $21 million, and had lunches with US presidents. “Success has created some challenges for me,” says the 48-year-old author. “I feel like I’m always responding to ‘asks’ from various people and organisations. But of course I’m very lucky to have had this success.”
It’s not hard to understand why Greg, the wimpy but plucky, awkward and imperfect middle-school misfit, stranded between childhood and adolescence, has become a hero to millions of kids. The books are funny, absorbing, playful and startlingly accurate in observing tweenage life, and that, perhaps has made them popular — winning over even reluctant readers.
“As a kid, I was anything but heroic,” says Kinney. “A book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid would’ve appealed to me because I could’ve seen myself in a protagonist like Greg.”
“Greg is not a hero,” adds Kinney.
Children’s books, new and old, from Tracy Beaker and Percy Jackson to Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Mowgli in The Jungle Books, are dominated by heroes, and Greg is a antithesis of fantasy protagonists.
“Aspirational characters are important. But it’s good to have characters who are more realistic, and more reflective of the reader, as well,” he says.
The format is admirably unfussy, told in a series of short, episodic chapters, with the text hand-written, as if it is Greg’s journal, doing justice to appealingly funny illustrations that propels the plot forward.
It is no exaggeration to say that Wimpy kids books, which are purposefully defiant, with succinct wit, have ignited reading interest among many pre-teen children, and Kinney says he likes playing that part in children’s lives — encouraging children to read whatever they are interested in.
“I love thinking that my books are turning kids into readers. It’s so important for kids to get a feeling of success when they finish a book. That leads to them wanting to read another, and another,” says Kinney, who as a kid was a voracious reader, and read Judy Blume, Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
“I think our goal as parents should be to turn our kids into lifelong readers. I’m convinced that the more a person reads, the more fulfilling their life will be,” adds Kinney, whose children, Will and Grant, are fans of his books, and still read them, despite them being teenagers now.
One of four children, Kinney grew up in a suburb of Washington, DC, and had a modest upbringing, and so the stories he writes, he says, are “all very ordinary”, and some of the challenges that Greg negotiates are drawn from his own experiences. “I was an average kid who had very wimpy moments. There’s a moment in the second book when Greg skips swim team practice by hiding in a toilet stall in the locker room. That was me!”
For his first book, Kinney, who worked as a graphic and layout designer on a local newspaper, and started an educational gaming site for children, toiled for nearly eight years before publishing it in 2007, and the book’s immediate success took everyone by surprise. Since then, there have been 13 Wimpy Kid books, with a 14th coming out soon, furthering the adventures of his hugely successful character Greg.
The success of his blockbuster series can be measured by the number of copies sold worldwide — more than 200 million — and four titles have been made into movies. But Kinney is unpresumptuous, saying that there’s “nothing cinematic” about the Wimpy Kid universe.
But seeing a book turned into a movie is “scary, unnerving, and exciting”, he says. “As an author, I control everything on the page. In films, it’s a collaboration, and it’s a director’s medium. It’s hard to hand off your work to someone else, but it can also be very rewarding. I’ve made lifelong friendships with the actors in the films, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Notwithstanding his phenomenal success, Kinney’s daily life has barely changed — he loves the life in Plainsville, a small town in Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife, Julie, and their two boys, and spends his downtime going to his kids’ basketball games, watching professional basketball games, and skiing with his family.
“But more and more these days, I’m finding that I find satisfaction in being productive. When I’m working well, I feel content,” says the author, who is in Dubai for the Emirates Lit Fest.
His favourite part of being an author, he says, is interacting with fans. “I especially like meeting fans who are from a different culture than my own. I never get over the fact that I write these books in a small town in Massachusetts, and that kids from all over the world read the books. It’s mind-blowing to me.”
While he continues to exert his mesmerising influence over child readers in a space crowded with celebrity-penned tales and fresh interpretations of the classics, and sell in big number, Kinney says staying fresh is becoming “more and more difficult”. “It’s hard not to paddle in the same waters. It’s a challenge. But I’m writing about childhood in the broadest sense, and childhood is a big universe.”
Over the years, Kinney’s writing process has changed as well. Earlier, he used to take long walks, waiting for ‘divine intervention’, he says, hoping that jokes and plot points would magically come to him. “Now I use a systematic approach to developing material. I write jokes for a few months, then write a manuscript in one month, then I draw for about two. The whole process takes between seven and nine months. But it gets very difficult at the end. I tend to draw for 13-16 hours a day, which gets a little harder every year.”
What’s the future of Greg Heffley? “Greg will live on, as most cartoon characters do. I’ve just started writing from Greg’s best friend’s perspective. In fact, that book goes to print today!”
Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.
Jeff Kinney is in Dubai to take part in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature at the InterContinental, Dubai Festival City.