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Jeff Kinney: The writer of longform comics

Jeff Kinney, the author of the hugely popular children's book series 'Diary Of A Wimpy Kid', on why his stories would fall flat without the artwork in the books, and how being an international bestseller has influenced his writing

Jeff Kinney. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Jeff Kinney. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

If you haven’t read the book series Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, chances are that you would have at least caught a glimpse of it at a bookstore sometime. Jeff Kinney’s books from this series have been around for nearly a decade now, growing on a whole host of junior and middle schoolers across India. With text in ruled paper, in a typeface akin to a child’s non-cursive handwriting, these are the journals of Greg Heffley, an awkward, “wimpy" child, stuck between a tough older brother and a spoiled little baby brother. Kinney, an aspiring cartoonist and video-game maker, intersperses the journal entries with simplistic drawings as if Heffley would have drawn them.

For an aspiring cartoonist who’d met with multiple rejections before he started posting his comics and ideas online on a website called, Kinney’s books, since their release in 2007, have been translated into 52 languages. According to the publishers, about 180 million prints of the first nine books have flown off shelves worldwide.

Kinney has since has settled into his life in a town called Plainville in Massachusetts, now even running a bookstore and café called An Unlikely Story with his wife. “To enrich our community with great books, healthy food and inspiring conversations," is what the store aims to do, according to its website.

The author was in India earlier this week to deliver the Penguin Annual Lecture (in Delhi and Mumbai); previous speakers have included the likes of economist Amartya Sen, and best-selling writers Ruskin Bond and Dan Brown. A month ago, Penguin’s children’s book imprint Puffin published the eleventh book of the Wimpy Kid series.

Edited excerpts from the interview in Delhi:

Let me go back to the start. ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ was a web series before you decided to finally show it to a publisher at the New York Comic Con in 2006. What made you to keep going with the series for so long?

I tried for about three years to become a newspaper cartoonist, and that was my big dream. But I wasn’t getting anywhere with that. And I realized that I had this idea—for Diary Of A Wimpy Kid. But the whole time I was working on it, I kept thinking, “This isn’t going to work, this is going to get rejected." Because that had been my only experience with newspaper submissions.

But I also felt like this was my opus. I wanted to make my best go at this. I didn’t want to show it anybody and share it with anybody until I was actually ready. So I really did just take my time, worked on it for a long time and then finally put it up on the internet. But the objective was always to get it published.

What were you doing for the eight years that you kept at this?

I was working as a computer programmer, I worked at a medical software company, I worked for a newspaper company. I had lots of different jobs, but ultimately the one that lasted the longest was as a game developer for kids. The website, Poptropica (a portal where kids can make an online character and take part in virtual quests, stories, and games), is my main work. I still actually have the same job—at least in part.

In an article you’d written for ‘The Guardian’, you’d called your books ‘longform comics’ and not really “literature" per se. Do you feel like children’s literature is opening itself up in order to reach out to children in different ways?

I think of my books as longform comics because the material is much more rooted in comics than it is in literature. For example, you have a character that doesn’t age and doesn’t change at all and that’s a convention more in comics than in literature. Also, the call and response—the cadence—of the book is that the text sets up the joke and usually the artwork delivers it.

So I think that you are going to see more and more of this kind of a thing. In fact, a lot of the best books now written in this format are by legitimate cartoonists—cartoonists who are transitioning from newspapers and into books.

Can you name some of your favourites?

Lincoln Peirce, who does Big Nate, does a good job with his books. And Stephan Pastis, who does Pearls Before Swine—he wrote a book series called Timmy Failure which is really good. So I think that there are a lot of people who imitate the look of the format but they’re really just writing illustrated books…they use the artwork to propel the story forward. Like, if you remove the artwork, the story wouldn’t really make much sense. I think that’s a good rule for writing these kind of books.

You just spoke about how the art propels your stories forward, and also about a character staying frozen in time, never growing up. In that sense, do you see Greg [Heffley] becoming kind of like Calvin from Bill Watterson’s ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ comics, for this time and generation?

I think that Bill Watterson was a masterful cartoonist. He was also a fine artist. His artwork is beautiful. Charles Schulz (Peanuts) was the same, though in a slightly different way. I think that…[there’s this] feeling of these being works of art.

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid is much more economical in its style, so I don’t think anybody would accuse me of being a great artist. But I think that these books are slightly different [from what Schulz or Watterson had done]. They’ve become a part of the fabric of kids’ lives now for a whole generation.

I’m excited to see what the future brings and how it might influence the next generation of cartoonists or storytellers. I would love to be regarded as a good cartoonist, as a great cartoonist. But we’ll see how history treats me.

Your trip to India now is a part of your larger world tour to promote ‘Wimpy Kid’. You’d once mentioned that travelling for the book changed the way you’d initially perceived your own books—you’d realized that ‘Wimpy Kid’ wasn’t just about a North American pre-teen’s everyday life, but it was about childhood itself. Has this altered the way you write, or do you think it will influence you in the future?

When I first started writing, I might have easily written a book about Thanksgiving which is obviously a distinctly American holiday, but now I wouldn’t. I might [only] include it…so I have to think long and hard before I do a book like that.

[So] I really focused on writing books that you couldn’t get a sense of when they’d happened. They could have happened 20 years ago, or they can happen 20 years from now. And so, in that way, I created a book that was also placeless—because I don’t want to mention current events, or things that are going on in our world. And that’s what worked to my benefit.

Because a kid in Turkey or India or Australia could read the books and feel like ‘this could be me’. So yes, travelling around the world has had an influence on my writing because I don’t want to write anything that feels too specific.

You have two school-going sons. Have they influenced the stories in some way?

Yeah, sometimes they’d do something I’d find really funny. For example my son’s pre-school has this song called the ‘Clean Up Song’, where everybody is cleaning up— “Clean up, clean up everybody everywhere/ Clean up, clean up everybody do your share." And my son admitted to me that he would just go around singing the song, but not do any of the cleaning up of the toys. And that’s exactly how I was as a kid. So things like that sometimes make their way into my books—less than you would think, though. But every so often, something like that does sneak in.

In effect, you’re making a lot of otherwise super restless pre-teen children read. Which authors really held your attention when you were at a similar age?

I really liked reading Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. They were women who wrote about average kids. And then when I discovered my own interests, I discovered fantasy. And my favourite books were those by Piers Anthony who wrote the Xanth series. I liked J.R.R. Tolkien, and I liked [Terence Dean] “Terry" Brooks who’s an American fantasy author. That’s when I got into really reading these 400-500 page books. I remember Tolkien did the maps (for The Lord Of The Rings books) which brought in real authenticity.

Are there any newspaper cartoonists right now that you keenly follow?

I’m not an avid newspaper reader these days. I do most of my reading online, so I don’t encounter comics as much as I used to. Comics were a big part of my upbringing. Growing up, we got The Washington Post and my father, every morning, would open the comics page. I actually miss those days. I like that rhythm of life. Maybe one day I’ll get back to it.


Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Double Down: By Jeff Kinney

Six ‘Wimpy Kid’ facts

■ The journey with Diary of a Wimpy Kid hasn’t been entirely positive for Jeff Kinney. Some parents voiced issues problems with the book using terms like “moron", “jerk", and “hot girls" in just the first few pages of the first book. Children the world over, however, have lapped it up.

■ In his efforts to promote Latin, Vatican cleric Daniel Gallagher, who manages the Pope’s Latin Twitter account, had the book translated into Latin.

■ There’s a film adaptation of the series running in parallel. German director Thor Freudenthal, who’s also an animator, directed the eponymous first (2010), while British animator and screenwriter David Bowers has directed second and third films (2011 and 2012), as well as the fourth and upcoming Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, scheduled to release in 2017.

■ (an offshoot of, Kinney’s place of work) where the Wimpy Kid series was first published is still online, in slides. It is up alongside other illustrated series for children such as The Cat that Broke the Internet’s Back (by Kory Merritt) and Galactic Hotdogs (by Max Brailler).

■ The books weren’t originally meant for children—they were for adults (his original manuscript was a mammoth 1,300 page document) as “a sort of reflection on what it was like to be in middle school," Kinney says on his website.

■ Two years after the first book came out, Kinney was included in Time magazine’s list of most influential people in 2009.

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