The “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series (Abrams) is wildly popular, spawning spin-offs, a movie, and countless imitations, yet author Jeff Kinney never anticipated such success. In a live SLJ webcast on November 12 (archived here), Kinney spoke about his origins as a children’s book author and some of the inspirations that went into the “Wimpy Kid” stories, including the seventh book in the series, The Third Wheel (Abrams, 2012), released last week.
Kinney initially planned to publish comic strips in the same vein as those he grew up reading in The Washington Post, such as The Far Side or Calvin and Hobbes. When he wrote his first manuscript, the intended audience was adults. “I wanted Diary of a Wimpy Kid to be for grown-ups who had forgotten what it was like to be a kid,” Kinney told the audience during the event, which was broadcast live from Clayton High School in Missouri. But when his publishers persuaded him to market the series to kids instead, it was the beginning of a blockbuster career that shows no signs of slowing down.
These fun, fast reads center on Greg Heffley, a hapless but hilariously self-aware middle-schooler who ranks himself either the 52nd or 53rd most popular kid at school. Kinney uses a mixture of diary entries and simple, stick-figure drawings to chronicle how the beleaguered pre-teen navigates the various obstacles in his life, from Rodrick, his older brother whose sole mission is to torment Greg, to the phenomenon of middle school, which he describes as “the dumbest idea ever invented.” The Third Wheel takes Greg and his wimpy sidekick, Rowley, into unchartered territory—the school dance, girls, and dating.
Students and librarians alike adore the Wimpy Kid novels, but in his talk, Kinney underscored the long process it took to reach his current level of fame. He began working as a cartoonist when he was a student at Villanova University, drawing a character named Igdoof, an endearingly awkward freshman who would serve as a prototype for Greg Heffley. However, it would take another 14 years before Kinney published anything.
Kinney also described some of his inspirations. He attributes many of his drawing techniques to Big Nate author Lincoln Peirce, with whom Kinney corresponded for several years when he was a young, aspiring cartoonist. Kinney also said that he drew on his own childhood for some of Heffley’s misadventures. A scene of Greg in a swimsuit hiding out in the bathroom to avoid his swim team coach in the second Wimpy Kid book, Rodrick Rules, came straight from Kinney’s own experience.
The author also emphasized the labor that goes into writing and illustrating his novels. He typically writes twelve to thirteen full drafts of each. “They say writing is rewriting, and you should believe that. Your first effort is not your best,” he said. Kinney also described the painstaking process of designing and illustrating The Third Wheel. He spent 17 hours a day during the month of August refining the book’s illustrations and examined over 200 different paint swatches to find the perfect shade of brown for the cover.
Kinney also spoke of the opportunities brought by fame, including the thrill of seeing a giant Greg Heffley balloon aloft as part of the 2010 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He encouraged students to pursue their passions: “I want to encourage every kid who has a creative thought to just develop it and believe in it, because one day your dream will fly.”
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