'I didn't think kids would read Diary of a Wimpy Kid!': Jeff Kinney on his books' success

Published on: 15 January 2018 Author: Emily Drabble

The phenomenally successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid series has young fans across the world, and now author Jeff Kinney is back with the 12th instalment - The Getaway. Emily Drabble caught up with him when he was in the UK to celebrate the book's launch. 

Jeff Kinney; Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway

What ingredients do you think make Diary of a Wimpy Kid so addictive, readable and engrossing?

When a kid opens one of my books it looks like fun, it doesn't look like work, and that's how reading should be for everyone - not just for kids, but for grown-ups, too. I think that the packaging is appealing and I think the format inside the book is appealing; that mixture of text and pictures I think grabs a kid and gets them interested.

Why do you think your Diary of a Wimpy Kid books are read by so many different kids from all kinds of different backgrounds and don't seem to exclude anyone?

I think that what I've learnt is that these aren't really the stories so much of Greg Heffley, they are really the stories of childhood itself. So when I write these books now I'm really trying to keep that in mind. For example, in my new book The Getaway, Greg is going on a plane for the first time. For those kids in the world that are lucky enough to do that, I would think they may react to the experience in the same way that Greg has. So I try to hold a mirror up for kids.

But strangely, I didn't write my first book with kids in mind at all. I didn't think any kids would read my books. I thought they were for grown-ups, for the humour section in the bookstore - not the middle grade section!

And yet your first book is perfect for children from all backgrounds. How did that happen when you weren't consciously writing it for them?

I'm not quite sure. I had some conflict when my publisher told me they wanted to make this into a kids' series. I thought Greg was a flawed character and I was a bit concerned that kids wouldn't understand that he wasn't necessarily a role model. So that was a worry of mine at the first stage, but it's one that I don't have anymore.

But I do think you have to have a bit of an understanding of irony and, in a way, the idea of a flawed protagonist and unreliable narrator - even if you don't know those words - to enjoy the books.

So do you think children of different ages read Wimpy Kid on different levels?

I do. I've noticed a big difference between even 7- and 8-year-old kids reading the books. When my younger kid was seven, he had the books read to him and he didn't quite get the jokes and understand the subtext. I remember it unnerved him a little bit and he wasn't interested. A year later, he did get it and it was funny to him.

Do you purposefully try make your books work in this way?

I do, especially as I've gotten around the world in the past few years. I regret some of the material that's very specific to the US in the early books, because I'm not trying to write about a US kid's upbringing, I'm trying to write about the childhood of every kid. That's something I'm really trying to improve on as I write. Ten years later I'm still trying to improve myself as a writer, and I think I have a long way to go.

Why did you set up your own bookshop An Unlikely Story in 2015?

Because I live in a small town called Plainville in Massachusetts, and it needed something like this. In the centre was a general store that had been closed for 17 years and was really falling down. So I wanted to replace it with something that the town could be proud of. That was the starting point. It wasn't so much to open a bookstore - it was to open something for the community, and a bookstore just fit the bill.

Which are your favourite children's books? What did you enjoy as a child, and what do you like recommending to children now?

I just read a graphic novel called Roller Girl which I thought was really great. I think the author, Victoria Jamieson, is really a rising star. And I liked her other book, which is called All's Faire In Middle School.

There's a book called Red and Lulu by Matt Tavares, which is a picture book about two birds in New York City around Christmas time which is a really beautiful, lushly illustrated book for younger kids.

And then Brad Meltzer has a series about ordinary people who change the world. It's this cartoon version of the story of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and it's really good. It's a time when we need heroes, and he's focusing on these stories.

I tend to lean towards highly illustrated and graphic novels in my personal choices of books. I think there are certainly great books for kids that don't have any illustration, but I'm in this middle grade world so those are the things I'm familiar with right now!

Which books did you love when you were a kid?

I really loved Judy Blume's books, and I liked JRR Tolkien -  I loved The Hobbit. There's this series called Xanth by Piers Anthony - that was really good as well.

Do you feel comics and graphic novels are more widely accepted now as suitable things for kids to read? Is Wimpy Kid a part of that?

I think there's been a big change. I've seen a change in the past ten years, for sure. I think that librarians recognise the most important thing is that we get children successfully reading a book. And that's what the value is of books like Wimpy Kid - they make kids feel successful and then they are looking for the next thing. And so kids will move on to bigger and better things. But you need those gateway books.

I know librarians recommend Wimpy Kid particularly for reluctant readers and I think it's an easy choice for kids that don't really like to read, because it's like candy in a way. It's something that's a bit ephemeral, but I think the fact that it's a chapter book makes a kid feel successful.

Do you worry about kids reading less now that there are so many demands on their time and so much to do that's not reading, like gaming?

There's so much else to do! Do I worry about it? I'd say I don't actively worry about it. I'm lucky enough to be somebody who has books out in the world, but I think it's up to us as grown-ups to create works and worlds that engage kids, that take them away from devices. That's certainly what I strive to do, and I think that's the challenge for our times.

Will you ever stop writing Wimpy Kid or do the ideas keep flowing?

Ha! The ideas don't flow at all for me! But I can't see myself stopping in the foreseeable future. I like this lifestyle!

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Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Author: Jeff Kinney

Greg Heffley is a normal American kid, albeit one with a habit of getting into (and out of) trouble.

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