Interview with Jeff Kinney - author of Wimpy Kid!
Jeff Kinney is the #1 USA Today, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and a six-time Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award winner for Favorite Book. Wrecking Ball, book 14, was published in November 2019, and was an instant #1 global bestseller. Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid: Rowley Jefferson’s Journal was published in April 2019, was an instant #1 global bestseller, and has remained at the top of the New York Times bestseller list since publication. Jeff has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. He is also the creator of Poptropica, which was named one of Time’s 50 Best Websites. He spent his childhood in the Washington, D.C., area and moved to New England in 1995. Jeff lives with his wife and two sons in Massachusetts, where they own a bookstore, An Unlikely Story.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid has been enjoyed all over the world from the USA and the UK to Turkey, China and New Zealand. What do you think has made the series so universally appealing?
I think what makes Diary of a Wimpy Kid work is the fact the childhood experience is, more or less, universal. Most of us have siblings and parents and teachers and pets, and those are some of the things that make up the fabric of my stories. And I think the books are accessible — when a kid opens a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, it looks like fun, not work.
You’d envisaged Wimpy Kid as a nostalgic comic for adults before your publisher convinced you it would connect with (much!) younger readers. Is it important to consider adult readers when writing for kids?
That’s a good question! I think that most writers for kids set out to impart a lesson on their readers. That’s not my goal. My goal is entertainment and laughter. Had I known I was writing for a younger audience, I think I would’ve started with the question of what I wanted to teach my readers. I’m glad I was able to focus on the humor.
The Wimpy Kid series has been credited with inspiring a new generation of “reluctant readers” to get stuck into great stories. Why is literature so important for kids and their development?
I think it’s obvious. People who read more go further in life and get more satisfaction out of life. We live in a time when screens dominate our existence. It’s harder and harder to get kids to read. But it’s so obviously good for a kid’s mental health and development.
When people talk about “reluctant readers”, they usually mean boys, who have been shown to underperform on reading tests around the world. As the father of two sons yourself, what’s the secret to getting boys excited about literature?
I haven’t always been successful in that! I think the motivation has to come from the kids. Books and magazines have to speak to their interests. If a kid likes Pokemon, a parent should supply them with a feed of Pokemon books and magazine articles. Reading breeds reading, and kids will branch out into other area on their own.
You’ve spoken about how your own upbringing has informed the Wimpy Kid series. Has your experience as a father had an influence as well? Excessive screen-time is a concern for many parents these days and something you’ve addressed directly in your writing. How do you feel about screen-time now, particularly given the year we’ve had?
I think Wimpy Kid is about the family experience, and I’ve now gotten to experience it as a kid and as an an adult. We’re all absorbed by our screens. The worst thing about all this screen time is that it makes us boring. I do think screen time has been somewhat of a saving grace during the pandemic — it’s the only way most kids could attend school — but it feels good when we’re able to untether as well. I’m going on tour soon, doing socially-distanced events. I feel like it’s really important to do something physical during this time — both for my mental health and for the mental health of my readers.