Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney: It's hard to keep up with kids

Jeff Kinney was in Singapore last week to meet young fans ahead of the publication of his 12th book, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Getaway, next month.
Jeff Kinney was in Singapore last week to meet young fans ahead of the publication of his 12th book, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Getaway, next month.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Not only does author Jeff Kinney travel for book tours, come up with jokes and draw for 16 hours a day for two months, but he also designs online games, runs a bookstore and is father to two teenage boys

The best-selling Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series of books may seem like kids' play, but producing them is a slog for American author Jeff Kinney.

The 46-year-old has a gruelling year-long schedule that has to run like clockwork, including two months of globetrotting for book tours, two months of brainstorming jokes and two months where he draws for 16 hours a day.

This has enabled him to put out a new book every year for the wildly popular children's series, in which self-important tween Greg Heffley recounts his daily adventures through diary entries and doodles.

Kinney manages this, despite the demands of his other jobs - designing online games, running his own bookstore and being the father of two teenage boys.

Not even the time a plane crashed into his neighbours' house could derail his publication schedule.

Kinney was in Singapore last week to meet young fans ahead of the publication of his 12th book, The Getaway, next month.

His books have sold 194 million copies in 53 languages worldwide and are a regular fixture on The Straits Times' weekly children's bestseller lists. They have produced four film adaptations and an animated television series is in the works. Kinney is now a multi-millionaire and was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2009.

It's a changing world and it's hard for the rest of us to keep up where kids are going," he says. "But literacy is very important to everyone's well-being.

AUTHOR JEFF KINNEY, on competing with image-driven social media and falling literacy rates

Hundreds of children flocked to meet him last week at events with parenting portal GoGuru and Popular bookstore at Bras Basah Complex.

"It has been humbling to see that so many kids in this part of the world, which I have never been to, connect with the books," he tells The Straits Times during his stay. "These have been some of my favourite events I've done in my life."

The Getaway, in which Greg and his family try to go on vacation at an island resort with disastrous results, is the 12th Wimpy Kid book.

Although all of Kinney's books have challenged him in their own ways, by far the most difficult to write was the 10th, Old School, two years ago.

That year, Kinney and his wife Julie had just opened indie bookstore An Unlikely Story in their adopted hometown of Plainville, Massachusetts - a risky move, given that the book industry is struggling in the United States as it is elsewhere, and Plainville has a population of just 8,000 people.

That summer, a small plane crashed into the house next to his, killing the pilot and two passengers. His neighbours escaped in the nick of time, but their house went up in flames. They moved into Kinney's studio, which meant he had to work on his novel at the bookstore instead.

He got the book out in time nonetheless. "I'm very aware each book is read by millions of kids around the world," he says. "I want to respect my audience and be as good as I can be in the time that I have to write each book."

He never intended to become a writer. He dreamt of being a newspaper cartoonist, but university had left him armed with a degree in criminal justice. He intended to be a law enforcement agent, interning at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but a hiring freeze caused him to end up working as a computer programmer instead.

In 2004, he began publishing Greg's adventures on children's education website FunBrain, an educational website he managed. By 2007, the series had been picked up for print and his first book, which took him nearly eight years to bring to light, was an instant hit.

Greg, a caustic, un-athletic kid trying to navigate the minefield of middle school, is partly based on Kinney's own childhood experiences. Like Greg, he used to hide from his swim team coach in the locker room, wrapping himself in toilet paper to stay warm.

"He's not heroic," says Kinney of his young protagonist. "There are a lot of heroes in children's literature, it's kind of the default - but they're not that interesting."

Greg is arrogant - he believes that by recording his life for posterity, he is doing the world a favour - and can be mean or selfish in his attempts to save face or avoid bullies.

Kinney says he wanted to make his protagonist flawed, so as to be believable. "It is a hard line to walk - I didn't want him to be a twerp or despicable. Kids have to root for him."

He plans to write about 20 books in the series. "I was worried at first that kids would not want to be seen with the books because they were 'wimpy'. But it's now become like a brand and kids self-identify with it."

He does see young fans trying to write diaries in the Wimpy Kid style, but notes that the written word is fighting a difficult battle with image-driven social media. "Nowadays with Instagram and Snapchat, you could get a pretty good snapshot of a child's life.

"But kids' emotional and intellectual development have always been better when books and writing are at the forefront. And I definitely think literacy is dropping."

He hopes that his Plainville bookstore is doing something to change that. It is thriving, with other big-name children's authors such as Rick Riordan, Dav Pilkey and Mo Willems putting in weekly appearances to draw crowds.

"It's a changing world and it's hard for the rest of us to keep up where kids are going," he says. "But literacy is very important to everyone's well-being."

•Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Getaway by Jeff Kinney will be released on Nov 7. It is available for pre-order from Popular at $19.75.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2017, with the headline 'Diary of a multitasking author'. Print Edition | Subscribe