With great empathy and a vivid memory, author-cartoonist Jeff Kinney chronicles the life of middle-schooler Greg Heffley in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. The journal-style format, interspersed with cartoons, makes the books quick, fun reads. The often hilarious, sometimes poignant tales follow Greg as he dodges bullies, avoids embarrassment, and wishes girls liked him. Rodrick Rules, the second in the series, debuted in early ’08, while the third, The Last Straw, arrives in January ’09. This fall, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself Book hits shelves, complete with unfinished comics kids can fill in themselves.
Kinney, age 37, always wanted to be a comic-strip artist. After experiencing rejection, the father of two boys began writing entries and doodles about his experiences in his journal. “I thought, ‘Wow! That’s an appealing format,’” says Kinney, who shares with us his views on achieving his dream of becoming a best-selling author-cartoonist, navigating middle school, and being part of the new “visual literacy.”
P&C: Why did you focus on characters in middle school?
Jeff Kinney: You have kids who are very pre-pre-pubescent and kids who are pubescent all mixed together, and it’s a tough time. I thought it would be a great setting for drama.
P&C: Why do you think Greg Heffley is the perfect main character for your story?
Kinney: He’s typical in a way: He can be petty and he can be kind. He gets picked on by the kids above him on the totem pole, and he makes sure he picks on the kids below him. He’s oblivious to his own faults. Middle-school kids can relate to that. Hopefully, his episodes are benign.
P&C: Can you give us an example of an “episode”?
Kinney: Greg often thinks he’s been redeemed when he hasn’t. In the first book, [his friend] Rowley gets in trouble for something Greg does. Greg’s mother tells Greg he needs to do the right thing. Greg thinks the right thing is to let Rowley take the fall this time around because it’s best for both of them. He comes home and Greg’s mother says, “Did you do the right thing?” and Greg says yes. He’s rewarded with ice cream, and he’s very proud of himself for having done the right thing.
P&C: What kind of kid were you in middle school?
Kinney: I was right in the middle of the popularity pack, physically awkward. I would dread anyone finding any of my middle-school pictures — braces, feathered hair. It was the pits, really.
P&C: What do you remember most about it?
Kinney: I went to a middle school that was kind of rough, where there were bullies that would push kids down in the hallways, but I tried to show bullying with a light touch. It’s a serious issue, but [in the books] it’s like sharks and minnows. The bullies are cartoonish and lampooned. They have no depth. Greg is just trying to navigate the dangers of middle school; he’s not confronted with serious situations.
P&C: What is your fondest memory of those years?
Kinney: I had a girlfriend in middle school and we would leave notes for each other on the desk that we shared.
P&C: Why do you think the book’s format is so appealing?
Kinney: There’s a little bit of text, an illustration, then a little more text. There’s just enough to keep kids reading. It’s never too intimidating. I remember reading my college psych textbook; whenever there was a page of text I’d be waiting for that next mental break where there was a picture.
P&C: Is it true that the Wimpy Kid series began as a webcomic?
Kinney: I design online games for a Web site called FunBrain. I added a daily entry for a year and a half. I knew even one whole page of text would make a kid stop reading. Kids have a “visual literacy” that has changed with the Internet. What kid is going to sit down at the computer and read page after page of text?
P&C: How can kids use this idea of visual literacy?
Kinney: I recommend journal writing. Better yet, keep a blog instead. Because with a journal everybody quits. You’re not getting any feedback, and you say, “Well, why am I doing this?” and it feels like a monument to yourself. If you write a blog and your friends read it, they’ll comment.
P&C: What are your goals for the future?
Kinney: There are certain books you come across later in life and remember how much you enjoyed them as a kid. I want to write that book.