Jeff Kinney is the author and illustrator of the beloved and bestselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, which is now celebrating 10 years in print. The series, which focuses on the hijinks of middle-schooler Greg Heffley and his friends, got its start on Kinney’s educational gaming website, FunBrain, and has since spawned 11 sequels, four movie adaptations, and a musical. Book 12, which hits shelves today, finds the Heffley clan on a holiday vacation that is more stressful than relaxing. Kinney, having recently returned from an international tour, is currently embarking on a series of school visits across the U.S., bringing books to underserved communities. We spoke with Kinney about the global success of the series, the appeal of visual storytelling, and finding new aspects of childhood to explore.
The series has been extremely popular with readers and so-called reluctant readers alike. Looking back on 10 years of Wimpy Kid, what was one of your most memorable or unexpected encounters with a fan?
Just about everything has been unexpected for me! From the time the first book was published, everything has felt a bit like The Truman Show. A few weeks ago, I went to Taiwan. What was strange for me was I went to a school of about 2,500 kids and they seemed to know my books really well; it was wild. These are children from a totally different culture from mine, literally on the other side of the world. It astonishes me how humor translates and that kids can relate to the characters. Things like that keep the fire burning for me. It was really inspiring and motivating.
Speaking of international readers, the books have been translated into more than 50 languages. Do you consider your global readership when creating the books?
I do much more now. I used to think of the books as being about this American kid, Greg Heffley. But over time, I’ve come to understand the reason readers connect is these are stories of childhood. And childhood, by and large, is a universal experience. What I do now when I’m thinking about what to write next is to consider which aspect of childhood I haven’t really explored yet.
For The Getaway, I wanted to write about airplane travel. For many kids, getting on a plane is a huge privilege, and flying for the first time can be a really unnerving and exciting experience. I’m always trying to look at childhood from a different perspective.
How has your creative process evolved over the course of the series? What do you still find most challenging, 12 books into Greg’s story?
It actually gets more and more challenging as I go along! I’m always trying to explore something I haven’t explored yet. On the one hand, it’s more challenging because you run out of areas to explore. On the other hand, childhood is such a big universe with an almost unlimited amount of topics to cover.
I used to draw on my memories. Most of the incidents in the books happened to me in real life, but were put into the fiction blender. Now I have to generate the ideas. One technique I use is called systematic inventive thinking, to help me generate new jokes.
Are you surprised by the growing attention and acceptance for graphic novels for young readers?
I’m surprised it didn’t happen much sooner. Kids always like to have pictures to look at. There’s such a big jump kids have to make from beautiful picture books to text-only novels. I think, for most kids, there needs to be an in-between that is accessible and that makes them feel successful.
Something I find very interesting, over the past 10 years or so, is that a lot of great storytellers have migrated to the gaming sphere. These games are blockbusters in the truest sense. Kids can now experience storytelling in an interactive fashion, where they are the hero. It’s remarkable, but it’s also in competition with reading. The good thing is that good stories are still being told. Kids are still experiencing good storytelling.
The Getaway (Diary of a Wimpy Kid #12) by Jeff Kinney. Abrams/Amulet, Nov. 7 $13.95 ISBN 978-1-4197-2545-6