February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Hard Luck and Big Dreams: SLJ Chats with “Wimpy Kid” Creator Jeff Kinney

It’s coming up aces for Jeff Kinney this year, and the future is looking brighter—and busier— than ever. Ahead of the November release of Hard Luck, the eighth middle-grade novel in his bestselling and award-winning  “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, Kinney took time out to organize Drawn Together, two back-to-back fundraising author events in September for the school libraries in tornado-stricken Moore, OK, and he is next set to participate in an exclusive live webcast at the Vegas Valley Book Festival in Nevada on November 4. Afterwards, Kinney will head out on the road to further promote Hard Luck, all the way to New York City for the title character’s fourth appearance as a balloon in the 2013 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

What else does Kinney have in the works? For starters, the author, illustrator, and game designer is planning an animated “Wimpy Kid” television movie based on Cabin Fever, the sixth book in the series, with some additional new material; it will air late in 2014. He is also working on building a community space—and possibly an independent bookstore—with his wife  in Plainville, MA, where they live. And he is looking forward to the potential for more fundraising appearances featuring his Drawn Together partners: cartoonists Dav Pilkey (“Captain Underpants”), Lincoln Peirce (“Big Nate”), and Stephan Pastis (“Timmy Failure”).

Amidst this whirlwind of activity, School Library Journal also got lucky—we were able to catch up with Kinney for a quick chat about the new book, his creative process, his experience in Moore, and some of the exciting new projects he’s got on the horizon. Here’s what he had to say.

Hard Luck’s publication will bring the total number of “Wimpy Kid” books in print to more than 115 million, and your schedule is filling up very quickly.
It’s great. It’s a neat feeling. [laughs]

How is the promotion for this new book different than that for previous titles?
I think that something that we’re really excited about with this book is that there was a really obvious theme to it. When you’re dealing with luck and fortune, you can build a program around that, so we’re starting the tour in Las Vegas and heading up the West Coast. We’re going to have these events with fortune telling and palm reading and luck and fate and chance and things like that, so it’s a strong message, and we are doing a lot more in terms of outreach. There’s a whole build up to it.

And a balloon again at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade!
Yup, we’ve renewed the balloon, so I’m also very excited about that. There’s a three-year term on that.

What was it like to see your the character of Greg Heffley for the first time as a balloon?
That was really kind of outrageous—to see your character amongst all these early classics, these iconic characters. It felt like we didn’t really belong in a way, like we kind of snuck into the party, especially because my character was immediately behind Kermit the Frog, and I think Snoopy was somewhere in that lineup as well. It felt like a thrill beyond imagining, really, to see the character flip between the buildings. That’s how we saw it, coming from a great distance. It was great!

The first year I got to see it purely as a spectator. We couldn’t get ourselves into a good position, so we were in the crowd and craning our necks and trying to jostle for position on the street. The next year and last year I got to walk it, and that is just really an exciting day. You get up when it’s dark, and you walk down the streets of New York—which are basically abandoned—and then there’s this real buzz and energy amongst the parade walkers. And then the sun comes up. It’s unbelievable, really.

Why do you think the character and the series resonates so much with kids? Were you attempting to be the voice of a certain age when you started the series?
Certainly not! [laughs] When I came up with the character, at the time I was reading “Harry Potter,” which I think is the best series of our generation.

But when I thought about a character who was more like me as a kid, I thought of someone who was really not heroic, and so I strived to create a character who was relatable and realistic and flawed. And I think that kids enjoy Greg for those reasons.

Can you tell us more about all of the experiences that Greg has gone through over the course of the series, and in this latest book?
It’s interesting. On the one hand, Greg has grown up a little bit. When he first appears, he’s entering middle school, and I always had this feeling of stress that I was going to have to age the characters up and have them grow older. But then I realized around the fifth book that the DNA of the books is really in comics and not in literature. I realized that the best cartoon characters don’t age, they don’t grow older. And so I used, in the fifth book, puberty as a metaphor: Greg can’t really figure out why everybody’s changing around him and he can’t seem to grow up. And it’s because he’s a cartoon character. In that book, the scene about holding onto childhood was a little bit heavy.

Since then I’ve had to walk that back. I’ve realized that kids aren’t reading my books to indulge in serious themes, but they’re reading them to get a laugh. So I’ve tried to keep the books as flat as possible in a way, to use the model of a sitcom where everything changes within the story, but then everything sort of returns to normal by the end.

I think it also makes the books travel well because kids are reading them out of order.

Do you have a favorite book or scene or situation in the series?
Yeah, my favorite moment is in the first book, where Rodrick has to write a letter apologizing for having a motorcycle girl magazine, where he writes a note under his mother’s command, and he says, ‘I’m sorry, women.’ That’s my favorite! [laughs]

What’s it like when your books become films? Does that inform your writing?
The films do not inform the writing of the books at all. It only travels in one direction, from page to screen. But I think that there’s a mix of feelings when taking your work to film, and it’s scary to lose control but it’s also very exciting to know your work is going to be there for everybody to see. So it was a really edifying experience for me. I grew a lot, I experienced things I never thought I would, and I thought there were a lot of things that the films brought to my stories that improved on the stories. And I think people liked them in general, so I feel good about the films.

And the next one is animated?
Yes! I’m working on an animated holiday special, which will hopefully be out next year. It’s going to be a televised special. It loosely follows along with Cabin Fever, which is the sixth book, but it departs and it follows its own beat, I guess you could say. It will have new material.

How will that differ from the live-action films?
I think that it’s going to feel more closely related to the books for a few reasons. One is that it’s going to look more like the books, and you won’t have to make the translation in your mind from a live actor to Greg Heffley in the books, and also I wrote the special, so it will have more of my voice in it.

Can you tell us more about your creative process? Has it become easier over the years?
It becomes harder and harder! [laughs] Because when you’re writing about a kid who’s stuck in middle school, you find yourself paddling in the same waters, and you have to find ways to keep it fresh. Also, when I wrote the first five books, I was drawing on a gigantic 1,300-page first draft that I released online. So now everything comes from scratch, so that makes it more difficult for sure.

Do you share your drafts with anyone before your books are published?
I share some of the books, various drafts, with some family members and the people who work for me, and I really like to get a cross section of people. Everybody’s opinion is equally valid when it comes to humor, and it’s good to know what works and what doesn’t.

Are there situations that you’d love to put your characters in but haven’t tackled yet?
[laughs]. You know, I’m tempted to have Greg have a girlfriend, but it’s just seems so anathematic to the series that I’m not sure I could pull it off! I think that, for me, the challenge is actually in keeping a really consistent quality of writing. I don’t want anybody to ever look at my books and say ‘Wow. Here’s where he started phoning it in.’ So I think that’s my challenge, to have the eight one be as good as the first.

You frequently participate in author talks. What is that like for you?
It’s really energizing. I go through different phases in my life. Every year when it comes to these books, in the first nine months, I’m full of doubt and self-loathing as I’m writing, and then I go about the business of writing and working really hard, working 14-hour days for months. And then I put it out there in the world, and there’s this kind of fun period where I get to enjoy the experience of having done all the work and reaping the rewards of it. And I’m particularly excited about this book and to get out there and to meet the people who might enjoy it.

Is there a big difference in your adult fans versus kid fans?
It’s funny! When I do book signings, kids don’t really know what to do at the moment of the signing, so they’re mostly silent. And so I don’t get to engage with fans much in a way that’s like an open forum. So I always like the mixed audiences. I like to speak to kids and adults because you can speak to them at both levels, and that’s really rewarding for me.

Recently you did a great thing for the students in Moore, OK. Can you tell us more?
That was really exciting. I had seen the events transpire on CNN, the tornadoes that went through Moore, OK, [in May] and I was very touched by it and obviously affected. It wasn’t hard to imagine how it felt to be the parent of a kid who was unaccounted for, and so a few months later I was still thinking about it, and I had participated in an event where authors visited Newtown.

And I thought, ‘Maybe I could get together a few people who worked in the genre that I work in?’ And I was blown away. I reached out to my dream list of authors, who work in cartoons, and they all immediately got on board. We raised $70,000 and had these two events that were really quite special.

[Our publishers]  jumped on board and paid for our travel, and donated all sorts of books. Just to see everybody make their own contributions and team up was exciting.

What was it like to meet with the students and parents of Moore?
We had a breakfast with some families that were affected, and it was moving. And you could see that they were in this huge transition. So it was humbling to be there, honestly.

Would you be interested in doing that kind of thing in the future?
Yeah! All four of us when we got together, we already started looking for the next event we’d like to do. We called it Drawn Together, and I think that’s an easy message, something that can adapt to different situations. So I would not be surprised to see that kind of thing happen again for sure.

In your talks with kids, you’ve often encouraged them to follow their dreams. Is that an important message for you to keep sharing with them?
Yeah! I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, because we’re building what looks like it will be a bookstore and community center in Plainville, and I just want kids to know that the world has really flattened out in such a way that you really can do just about anything from anywhere. I hope to inspire kids here to nurture a creative talent, and to learn professional-level skills. I think that’s what I’m really focused on here, is to take a kid who’s got that creative spark and then to help them develop their talents, so hopefully that’s something we’ll be able to do here.

Can you tell us more about the project?
It’s something that we are still exploring, but we are building the building. There was an old market in the middle of town that had been abandoned for 17 years, and it became an eyesore, and it was unsalvageable. So we purchased it, took it down, and we’re building this state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly building that’s going to have a second floor that will be a really large open space that’s high tech. People can take classes in it and hopefully do some things that enrich their lives. And on the first floor, we’re exploring making a bookstore there, and that’s our hope, that we can find a way to make that work.  We’re hoping we have the right ingredients here.

Will you also be sharing that inspirational message with kids in your webcast?
I’m going to be telling kids about the creative process as I’ve done in years past, and about how “Wimpy Kid” came to be, and then I want to tell them a little bit about Hard Luck.

I never really read from my books because it doesn’t work—this middle-school kid and this deep-voiced awkward adult. [laughs] So I’ll just be hopefully inspiring kids who might become authors or cartoonists to chase after their dreams.

Sign up now for the Jeff Kinney webcast on November 4.
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Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.