Jeff Kinney holds a mirror up to childhood with Wimpy Kid series

When he decided he just wasn't good enough to be a newspaper cartoonist, Jeff Kinney decided he had to find another way to get his illustrations published. It would be the origins of publishing phenomenon, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, he tells Rowena Walsh.

Jeff Kinney holds a mirror up to childhood with Wimpy Kid series

Jeff Kinney’s books have sold 180 million copies, been made into four feature films, and are beloved by children throughout the world, but the author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid never thought for one second that he had written a story for younger readers.

He was sure that his debut novel was aimed at adults and belonged in the humour section of the bookshop.

It was quite a shock when his publisher told him otherwise.

But just two weeks after Diary of a Wimpy Kid was released in 2007, it entered the New York Times bestseller list, where it stayed for a full five years.

Jeff is now one of the world’s most successful writers.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid was voted ‘The Best Children’s Book of the Last Decade’, in a Blue Peter poll, beating JK Rowling’s Harry Potter to the top spot.

Jeff’s combination of simplistic cartoon illustrations and stories of the average life of a 12-year-old is a winning one.

Greg Heffley, the appealing, self-obsessed star of the Wimpy Kid series, is no hero, which may explain why the books are so popular.

“I think that the reason the books work is that they act as a sort of mirror for kids,” says Jeff.

“The situations that Greg is in are mostly relatable.”

And those situations are universal, appealing to readers anywhere.

Jeff says the biggest surprise and delight for him over the last five or six years has been meeting children in countries as diverse as Ireland, Brazil, and China “who enjoy my books because they see themselves in the characters’ situations”.

Jeff has met his Irish fans several times.

“Ireland has been so great to me,” he says.

“It always ranks up there with the highest per capita readers of Diary. It’s always really exciting to go to there because the fans are so enthusiastic about it.”

His latest book, Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid, which he describes as his funniest yet, is a new departure for 48-year-old Jeff.

This time the story is told by Rowley Jefferson, Greg’s best friend.

For Jeff, writing about the same universe from a different perspective, infusing something new into the familiar, was both exciting and challenging.

He has said that his books wouldn’t exist without the upbringing he had or the family that he has.

“My family is in there in a sort of mixed-up funhouse kind of way,” he says.

I wouldn’t say the books are literally true but there are true moments throughout the books.

Jeff was born on an Air Force base in Maryland. His father worked as an analyst for the Pentagon and his mother ran a pre-school.

He has described it as a typical American childhood, and he feels this has helped him in writing about ordinary things.

“The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books stay in this world; their stories are very small.

“My challenge as a writer is to keep finding aspects of childhood that I haven’t explored yet.

"In this book, I’m writing about home improvements and moving, a family uprooting itself.

"There’s always something that I haven’t yet explored because childhood is a big universe.”

Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid, his 14th book, is only the first of Jeff’s stories to be published in 2019.

The next instalment in the Wimpy Kid series will be released later this year.

Jeff credits his mother for his work ethic.

“She showed me that you can do your day job and pursue your dreams at night.”

It took Jeff nine years of working evenings and weekends to complete Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Despite the phenomenal success of the series, he only gave up his day job last April.

He had worked on an educational games website, which featured his cartoon strip.

“I was definitely always aiming to get the story published, but what the internet did for me was that it allowed me to release it in daily instalments.

"It basically propelled me to keep writing because I knew I had an audience.”

He was also getting valuable feedback. He says that, ironically, although it was released on a children’s site, he was mainly hearing from adults.

At the time he wasn’t surprised, as they were his intended audience.

“In a sense, I was very naïve. Because my father collected comic strips and I read them as an older teen and a young adult, I thought of comics as being for a general audience, and for grown-ups.”

The young Jeff loved Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck by US cartoonist Carl Barks.

“He wrote these great stories; these epic, globe-trotting stories that made a huge impact on me.”

Jeff went to college on a military scholarship and it was there that he began work on a cartoon strip.

He changed direction after his freshman year and began studying computer science.

He had planned to work as a federal agent, but when he left college, there was a hiring freeze.

“I always intended to have a career that paid the bills in computer science,” he says.

My cartooning was my rock star dream, that was the thing I was going to work on at nights and weekends and hope I could break through.

Although he had yearned to be a newspaper cartoonist, he realised that he didn’t have the artistic talent: “I had to find a different way to get my cartoons published.”

He could write though, and his childlike drawings for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, coupled with his sharp observations of tweenage life meant that even though his intended audience for the changed, his work didn’t.

“It was ready to go,” he says when he first found a publisher. “I can’t think of a word that I changed.

"Maybe a sentence or two, it really stayed the same in essence.”

He says the standout moment of his career was simply getting published in such a strange format.

The first print run for Diary of a Wimpy Kid was 15,000 copies. For Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid it is 3m.

Jeff was amazed when his debut become a New York Times bestseller a mere fortnight after publication.

“It’s the stamp that every writer wants to get. It was something that I didn’t even consider when I wrote the book.

"It debuted at number seven and it eventually got to the number one spot later that year.”

He says getting onto the bestseller list was the “most pure expression of joy” he and his wife Julie ever had.

He had only just written his third book when Time magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2009.

He found this so incredible that he originally thought it was his agent playing a practical joke.

He later said he wasn’t even the most influential person in his own house.

That same year, he spoke at the World Economic Forum at Davos, addressing political and business leaders.

“That was a wild ride, for sure. I talked about how I wrote my books. I’m sure if I looked over that speech, I wouldn’t be too impressed.”

Since then, he has met then-president Barack Obama in the White House for the Easter Egg roll, spent extended periods of time with former president George HW Bush and had lunch with his son George W Bush.

You don’t realise how many times you see a president’s image and how it’s burned into your psyche, and it’s really weird to have that person’s attention or to be sitting across the table from them.

He also received child-rearing advice from Barbara Bush.

He and Julie have two sons, Will and Grant, who are 16 and 13 respectively.

“We really strive to give our kids as normal a life as possible, and I asked her how she kept things normal for her kids, given that her husband was governor at that time.

"She said why would you want to be normal? She was really encouraging me to embrace the extraordinary circumstances of my life.”

However, Jeff, who has lived in Plainsville, Massachusetts — “the name says it all” — for the last 17 years, seems happy to revel in small-town life.

The former cub scout leader says the biggest change his success has brought is that he and Julie have been able to improve their town when they opened a bookstore and café called An Unlikely Tale.

It’s very much a labour of love for Jeff.

“A lot of Massachusetts towns are very depressed; we were able to build this really beautiful three-storey building and invite the world’s best authors here.

"The bookstore is the centre of my professional life, and that never would have been without the success of the books.”

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