Talk about an unlikely story: A failed cartoonist writes a book for adults that ends up on the CHILDREN’S best-seller list! Unlikely or not, it’s the story our Rita Braver has to tell:
“I think that every family road trip longer of more than about three hours is a nightmare family road trip,” Kinney said of his new book. “I think I got the cover image just right, which is Greg in the way-back of the minivan under a pile of luggage. Every time I show that to kids, they say, ‘That’s me, I’ve been there.'”
“Greg” is Greg Heffley, perpetually stuck in middle school, as he puts it, “with a bunch of morons.” He’s always being embarrassed by his parents, and he’s got two awful brothers: the nasty older one, and the tattle-tale toddler.
Greg is a very nervous, sneaky, fearful and bullied and bullying protagonist.
Braver asked the author, “Why have someone as a main character who’s not the least bit heroic?”
“When I was writing ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid,’ I was actually reading Harry Potter,” said Kinney. “He is brave, he is magical, he is powerful. And I wasn’t any of these things as a kid. So I wanted to create a character who was more like I was.”
“Were you a wimpy kid?”
“I was an average kid, but I had very wimpy moments,” he replied.
Jeff Kinney grew up outside Washington, D.C., dreaming of becoming a cartoonist. He actually created a successful comic strip, called Igdoof, for the University of Maryland’s campus newspaper.
But when he tried to land a cartooning job after graduation:
“I went through about three years of sending out submissions and then getting rejected,” he said, “so it was really kind of soul-crushing.”
He got a day job designing online games. Then on the side, he started writing and illustrating “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
But it wasn’t FOR kids.
“In fact, the first draft was 1,300 pages long,” Kinney said, “and it was meant to be sort of a primer or a nostalgia piece for adults.”
He worked on that draft for eight years.
Braver asked, “Why didn’t you give up?”
“Because I was prolonging the rejection, in a way,” he laughed. “Part of it was, you know, just putting off the inevitable for me.”
Still, in 2006 at a comic book convention, he showed a short excerpt to an editor from Abrams Books, mostly known for its elegant volumes on art.
“And then he just looked at the first page — he didn’t read anything at all — and he said, ‘This is exactly what we’re looking for, and this is why we’re here,” Kinney recalled. “And then he said, ‘It’s going to be for kids.” And believe it not, that was a huge shocker to me at the time. Never for a second in the eight years I was working on ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ did I think that I was writing for kids.”
But when “The Wimpy Kid” was marketed to a young audience, it took off beyond Kinney’s wildest dreams.
“I’ll never forget when The New York Times list came out, and I had made the list,” Kinney said. “I couldn’t believe it. My wife and I were jumping up and down on the bed, and in fact, it stayed on the list for more than five years straight. I pinch myself every day!”
“It was surprising, it’s still surprising to us,” said Kinney’s wife, Julie. “Every now and then we’re like, ‘How did this happen? Why did it happen? This is nuts!'”
Nuts or not, Julie and their sons, Will and Grant, seem to take it all in stride — even the fact that Jeff has been an executive producer of three films based on the series.
To stay close to his readers, Kinney travels all over the country, turning up at places like Edward Molin School in Newburyport, Mass., where everyone seems to be a fan.