Ever since the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid was published in 2007, Greg Heffley and his family have been an integral part of popular culture. Author Jeff Kinney’s illustration of Greg as a round-faced, lanky kid, with a hint of a scowl on his face, has made him one of the most recognised characters in children’s literature. Over the last 14 years, thousands of young readers across the globe have followed the adventures of the clumsy, forgetful middle school student, as he gets into scrapes of all kinds.
Last year, in Deep End, book 15 in the series, the Heffley family embarked on a cross-country camping trip for ‘misadventure’ of a lifetime. Now, the latest book, Big Shot, which was released on 26 October 2021, shows Greg doing something unpredictable—trying out for the basketball team. Do Greg and sports mix? That’s the question that Kinney is trying to answer in book 16. Over a video call, the author talks about the inspiration for his current book, the upcoming Disney animated movie, and how the Heffley family is responding to the pandemic. Edited excerpts:
Who would have thought that Greg would land up in a sports field. Where do his adventures lead him this time?
I have been wanting to do a sports book for a really long time, but have always been afraid to go down that route. If I put a soccer ball on the cover of a book, it might turn off all the kids who don’t play that game. I couldn’t figure a way out until I realised that if I put a lot of sports equipment on the cover, kids would accept it as a sports book. In Big Shot, Greg is thinking a lot about sports. He has been watching the Olympics, just like a lot of kids did this year. He is thinking about what it would be like to be an athlete. But then he feels it is not for him. His mother, on the other hand, coaxes him to join a sports team. She tells him the reason he doesn’t like sports is because he has never been part of a real team. So, Greg reluctantly tries out for basketball. He hopes he wouldn’t make it and that would get him off the hook. And that’s what happens. But then there is a twist in the tale, with the best player unable to attend the game. What follows is a disastrous sports season. The book was a lot of fun to write. Both my sons played basketball, so I took a lot of learnings from those experiences.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid has been adapted into a motion picture before. And now Disney is coming up with an animated movie. How different or challenging is it to adapt the series into animated versus films with real-life actors in them?
In using human beings as actors, the audience has to make a really big leap. The drawings of the character look a certain way, and they don’t look like that on screen, so there is a little bit of a disconnect. In the animated version, it feels like the book has literally come to life. Characters, even though three-dimensional, are close to my drawing style. They feel more authentic to the book. And I hope we have carried a lot of the DNA of the books in the Disney movie.
Greg’s mom doesn’t like screen time and his father doesn’t like anyone messing with his miniature models. During the pandemic, how do you see the Heffley family coping with these many things together?
During the pandemic, parents stopped trying to regulate screen time. I saw it happening everywhere. There are only so many board games you can play. And I feel this will remain a permanent fixture for this generation. Even for us—the way we are talking right now on Zoom, we probably wouldn’t have been doing this a year-and-a-half ago. But now it’s natural, it’s a tool that we use.
I sort of addressed the pandemic in the last book. On the first page of Deep End, Greg says he loves his family but he doesn’t want to spend 24 hours a day with them. He says what they need is a vacation from each other. I was trying to acknowledge the pandemic without being too on the nose about it. It was interesting as a writer. This was one event that everyone in the world was experiencing together to varying degrees. I had to acknowledge that.
Greg’s best friend, Rowley Jefferson, has emerged as one of the most loveable characters in the series, and you have written separate books around him as well. What's it like to keep these parallel narratives going for characters whose lives are so enmeshed together?
Rowley is a creator. That is something we see in our kids a lot today. One day they are consumers, and the next day they are being creators. When I write from Rowley’s perspective—when is telling spooky stories or stories of adventure— he has that childlike wonder. He is not worried about structure or logic. He is creating like a kid would create. It is easy to keep storylines separate as in the Rowley books 2 and 3, he is just looking at his own world and vision.
You started writing Diary of a Wimpy kid more than a decade ago. How has the Heffley family evolved in your mind while keeping the storyline consistent to its original idea?
I don’t often revisit my old writing. It is only when I am looking for material for new Disney movies that I go backwards. I think someone someday will do an analysis of how the characters, storytelling have changed, or even how I have changed as a person. It is hard to detect that when you are writing. I did start writing the books long before I met my wife or became a parent. Now I am at a different stage of life—I am parenting college kids. So, I think having a second look at childhood helped me get more material, and now I can relate to the parents in the books much better.