Just two weeks before the release of the highly anticipated movie Diary of a Wimpy Kid-Rodrick Rules, I had the extreme pleasure (with eight other parent bloggers) of "virtually" sitting down for a chat with Jeff Kinney the author and creator of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should first mention that I have been a fan of the series since it first came out, so being included in an intimate interview with Jeff left me a little star struck. Luckily Jeff could not have been more gracious or down to earth as he chatted with us. Even though he lives in a town named Plainview, he is anything but plain as we found out in the course of an hour talking with him about where Greg is going, how it feels to be an author, and why he still has a day job.
Question: What is the wimpiest thing you’ve ever done?
Jeff: The wimpiest think I’ve ever done is documented in the second book and in the second movie, which is that I was on the swim team and I didn’t want to practice. And so, every day, I’d ask my coach in the first few minutes of practice if I could go to the bathroom. I would go into the bathroom, freeze my tail off and wrap myself in toilet paper to prevent hypothermia.
Question: What advice would you give to middle school boys in regards to bullying as the character of Greg?
Jeff: What I wasn’t aware of in the culture of middle school kids these days is that there’s this huge culture of secrecy in that the worst thing you can be is a snitch. And what I always tell kids is that the silence is the bully’s friend.
Question: Why do you think the books resonate with kids across grade levels?
Jeff: It’s something that I ask myself a lot, especially because I had intended these books to be for adults. I wrote Diary of a Wimpy Kid over a period of about eight years, and I really had an adult audience in mind the whole time. What happened instead was my publisher said that they saw this as a children’s series. Reflecting on what’s happening, I think that what the kids like is that they’re not being talked down to. The books aren’t didactic in any sort of way. They’re entertainment. I feel that what’s good about the books is that they get kids to see that reading can be fun, and then they move onto something more substantial. I see it with my own child, Will, who reads my books or had them read to him, and he’s become a reader. And now, he’s reading a whole series about puppies. I think it’s funny; it was sort of like a bait and switch in a way. I don’t think my books are worthless. I think that they’re good entertainment. But, I love it that they’re turning kids into readers.
Question: Since you said that you started out looking at Diary of A Wimpy Kid as a book for adults and that you were writing with an adult kind of sensibility and mindset, is it different now when you’re thinking of going forward in the series? Have you had to change a little bit of what you were going to write so that it’s for the younger audience?
Jeff: Well, when I found out my books were going to be published as a kids’ series I was a little bit shocked. And then, I thought, boy, what am I going to have to change. I looked back over my work, and I barely had to change anything. I realized that my sensibilities were very G rated anyway. As I’m writing now, my greatest fear is losing my touch. I still try to write with an adult audience in mind or maybe myself in mind. I stry to keep the work to a high standard because I think that kids will meet you at that level and that you don’t have to write down to children.
Question: How do you respond to the parents that might say that Greg isn’t necessarily the kid I want my children to hang out with, even in literary form?
Jeff: I’ve tried to create this character that is funny because he’s imperfect. I know that might sound like a copout. For somebody to say that Greg is a bad kid or a rude kid, I don’t quite agree with that. I would say that he’s flawed. He’s a kid whose life is being documented at a time that nobody would want their life documented. I’ve come to find that kids have a certain sophistication in the way they read books. They don’t see Greg as a role model, but they might share his point of view from time to time. We need to trust our kids to know the difference. Mark Twain, for example, wrote about these characters, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer who were not model citizens. But he trusted his readers to figure it out for themselves.
Question: Did you have that dream that Greg had of being rich and having a nice house?
Jeff: It’s funny. I was asking myself that question yesterday, because I was writing a new page in the Do It Yourself Book, and the conceit of the Do It Yourself Book is that you’re going to be rich and famous one day. So, you might as well fill in this book because it’s really going to be worth something. And I was really sort of thinking about it. I said, wow, I wasn’t really like this as a kid. Although I didn’t really think that way as a kid, I feel that when you’re a kid, you always feel like you’re destined for greatness.
Question: Do you feel that you’ve changed with the success you’ve had? Has it made you look at things differently or changed how you feel?
Jeff: My life really vacillates between very normal experiences and very abnormal experiences. On the one hand, I feel as if I haven’t changed much. I’m sitting here right now in my office at the same job that I’ve worked at for 11 years now, and driving a sort of beat up Prius. And on the other hand, a few weeks ago, I was having lunch with Condoleezza Rice and George H.W. Bush and his wife in their son’s home.
Question: What are your future plans?
Jeff: I’m definitely working on another Diary of A Wimpy Kid book now. When I started this up and realized that the books were going to be in a series, I had a definite end goal in mind, which I think probably was about either book three or book five. And what I really have realized is that kids don’t take my books very seriously, that they’re not Harry Potter or that the DNA of the books is not in storytelling. It’s in jokes. I’ve realized as long as I have good ideas, I should keep writing and maybe take some time off down the road. But I’m gonna keep it going and I’m having fun. It doesn’t feel like it’s the end of something. It feels like the middle. So, I hope kids will still enjoy it down the line.