Author Jeff Kinney's hot streak not wimping out
Kids' books: The author of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" books has a new title out.
Scripps Howard News Service
It's been a wild ride for children's author/illustrator Jeff Kinney.
Five years ago, he was wandering around the New York Comic Con in the cavernous Javits Center in New York City, trying to interest a publisher in his idea for a book featuring a comically hapless middle-school boy.
Today, Kinney is one of the best-selling authors in America. More than 50 million copies of his "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" books are in print in the United States and Canada. The series has been translated into 35 languages, with kids around the world delighting in the misadventures of a self-centered preteen named Greg Heffley.
The sixth book in the series, "Cabin Fever" (Amulet/Abrams, $13.95, ages 8-12), was published on Nov. 15 with a first printing of more than 6 million copies, making it the biggest release of the year in both kids' and adult books, according to Publishers Weekly. Kinney has been named one of Time magazine's 100 "most influential people in the world," and two movies based on his books have grossed millions of dollars.
Perhaps most important, Kinney has been lauded by parents, teachers and librarians for convincing millions of reluctant young readers that reading can be fun. Kids particularly enjoy the hybrid format of words and illustrations that Kinney uses to tell his tales.
It's a pretty heady experience for the 40-year-old Kinney, who — while he's grateful for his success — still considers himself a "failed cartoonist."
"I'm an author whose strength is in gag-writing,"Kinney said in a recent telephone interview. "I recently went to speak at the National Cartoonists Society, and I think the line is clearly drawn between what they do and what I do."
While Kinney had long dreamed of being one of those storied cartoonists, he now understands that he's taken a different path, saying: "I'm someone who has lucked out in finding the right niche for what I do."
In fact, the just-published "Cabin Fever" once again demonstrates Kinney's innate ability to portray the world as seen through kids' eyes. As always, the story is told in journal entries purportedly written by Greg, a middle-school student who calls himself the "52nd or 53rd most popular kid in school." As fans of the other "Wimpy Kid" books are well aware, Greg is lazy, manipulative, egotistical and prone to massive overstatement.
In other words, he's a hugely flawed narrator with whom young readers readily identify. Mostly importantly, at least as far as kids are concerned, Greg's antics — particularly as they are portrayed through Kinney's illustrations — are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
This time, Greg and his family find themselves snowed in by a huge pre-Christmas blizzard. Of course, nothing goes right: the basement floods, the family is close to running out of food and the power goes off. And, as usual, Greg's mostly thinking about Greg, especially as he's forced to share quarters with his older brother, Rodrick.
Being snowed in is only one of the travails facing Greg in "Cabin Fever." Greg also faces numerous other challenges, many of them created by well-meaning but seemingly clueless adults. To top it all off, it's the holiday season, and — against all odds — Greg is hoping to impress Santa with his good behavior.
While kids are highly entertained by Greg's escapades and attitude, some adults are appalled by Greg's lack of responsibility, his sarcasm and his failure to own up to his mistakes. Kinney, however, says that "Greg is a magnification of my flaws as a kid," arguing that Greg is "a realistically flawed protagonist.
"He's a magnification of the flaws that most people have inside. But that's not the way people like to see themselves," Kinney added.
Kinney himself grew up in Fort Washington, in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Like Greg, Kinney has an older brother and a younger brother (but he also has an older sister). At the University of Maryland, Kinney created a comic strip called "Igdoof" that he hoped would be his ticket to cartooning stardom; he even changed his major from computer science to criminal justice because he thought he would have more time to draw.
But Kinney's efforts to become a cartoonist were stymied by a mountain of rejection letters and he, instead, became a well-regarded website developer. Among his creations is the popular website Poptropica.com, which was named one of Time magazines' 50 best websites.
Although Kinney initially had hoped to write for adults, he now believes that "I was writing for kids all along," adding: "I think I'll always write for kids — that's where my sensibilities are."
Kinney says that he thinks he will write seven to 10 "Wimpy Kid"books, which means that there is at least one more book — and maybe more — in the series.
Meanwhile, while Kinney's life has undeniably been changed by the success of the "Wimpy Kid" books, he's also worked hard to keep at least some of it the same, and, in fact, he still works as a website designer.
"I live in the same (Massachusetts) town, I'm involved in my sons' Cub Scouts," said Kinney, a married father of two boys. "Emotionally, much about my life has remained the same."
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.