In honor of the release of The Meltdown, book 13 in his wildly popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, author-illustrator Jeff Kinney decided to add some variety to his usual school and bookstore visits. On October 30, the day the book hit shelves, Kinney set off on an eight-city East Coast bus tour, including—in addition to public appearances at a number of elementary schools—a live, one-hour interactive performance, which was produced by the Switch agency and Abrams.
The “Wimpy Kid Live” show features many of the hallmarks of Kinney’s presentations for young readers—an overview of his early inspiration and path to publication (condensed from 30 minutes to two minutes); a drawing demo; footage from his international tours; and a QA—along with trivia challenges, dance-offs, and a snowball fight bringing to life a climactic scene in the newest book.
Since the series’ 2007 debut, more than 200 million copies of the Wimpy Kid books have sold worldwide, in 59 languages, including Latin, and Scots. The following eight international stops are also part of Kinney’s fall tour: Denmark (a new destination for Kinney), the U.K., Germany, Finland, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Canada.
On November 2, PW joined Kinney in Connecticut for a behind-the-scenes look at The Meltdown tour.
Befitting a rock star-style vehicle, The Meltdown tour bus happens to be steered by a professional musician who has performed with country singers including Carrie Underwood. The last time Kinney toured by bus was for book nine in the Wimpy Kid series, The Long Haul, in which hero Greg Heffley and his family take a road trip of their own. Photo: Jeff Kinney.
Kinney kicked off the day with an interview at Fox Morning News in Hartford, followed by a segment on Better Connecticut, at Rocky Hill Studio in Rocky Hill. Here, the author speaks with Better Connecticut hosts Kara Sundlun and Scot Haney about his new book, and the recently launched Wimpy Kid emojis.
Up until the Wimpy Kid bus pulled up in front of Lincoln Middle School in Meriden, Conn., at noon on Friday, teachers and students knew only that a “mystery author” would be visiting. The 450-seat auditorium resounded with cheers when Kinney was introduced.
Also in the audience was Charles Kochman, editorial director of Abrams ComicArts and editor of the Wimpy Kid series, who said of the crowd’s welcome, “That was one of the loudest reactions I ever heard for Jeff.” Kochman later had to step in to maintain order when the young winners of a book raffle were invited to claim their prizes, swarming the front of the auditorium.
After the event, Kinney told PW, “It’s humbling to get that kind of reaction from kids—especially middle schoolers, who tend to be a bit more jaded than elementary school kids. The fact of the matter is a lot of those kids today were a year old, or just born, when the first book came out. It’s really exciting; it feels like I can keep doing this and attracting new generations of fans.”
The fall tour also includes school visits in Boston and Plainville, Mass.; Rhinebeck, N.Y.; Madison, Conn.; Princeton, N.J.; Scranton and Pottstown, Pa.; Washington, D.C.; Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C.; and Decatur, Ga. As part of his appearances at select schools, Kinney is partnering with Scholastic Book Fairs to offer students tokens for two free books of their choice.
After years of being met with rejection for his comic strip, Igdoof, Kinney said that pulling story ideas from his illustrated diary helped unlock the inspiration for his first Wimpy Kid book. “This could be a format that works,” he thought. From conception to publication, the book took more than eight years to produce. Kinney told students, “You’ve easily got 10 Diary of a Wimpy Kid-style books in you, if you write down the funny stories in your life.”
Kinney also told the audience that his favorite part of being an author is getting to meet young readers across the globe. “The book has sort of been like a passport for me,” he said, before showing clips from his foreign travels. “I have this privilege of writing something that reaches millions of kids around the world.”
Reading specialist Joyce Arnold spoke with Kinney backstage at the Lincoln Middle School auditorium, before his presentation. Describing the series’ appeal for struggling and reluctant readers, Arnold told PW, “It’s silly, it has images, and kids can totally relate to the characters—plus it has movie adaptations to go along with it. But the kids always come back and say, ‘Miss Arnold, the book was way better.’ ”
During a brief break in his packed schedule, Kinney caught up on some writing. He told PW, “I’m actually working on a top-secret project—right here on this bus—that we’ll be able to announce pretty soon.”
Kinney is also thinking ahead for his next tour. He said of staying motivated on long hauls, “Just being around people we like is really energizing. And who wouldn’t want to be on a bus traveling the country, making kids happy?”
Kinney closed out the day with a sold-out performance of “Wimpy Kid Live: The Meltdown Show” at the Morgan School in Clinton, Conn. The event, which was hosted by R.J. Julia Booksellers, drew a crowd of 650 fans. Explaining that he’d grown tired of “giving the same speech” every time he made an appearance, Kinney told the audience that the evening’s show would be created by chance—with a spin of the “Wheel of Ice.”
Among the categories of possible activities was “Stump Jeff.” Here, kids put the author to the test on his own material. Questions ranged from the mundane (“What do the Heffleys call their dog?”) to the more hard-hitting, such as this one from Tommy: “What’s the name of the kid who pulls his pants down when he pees?” (The answer? Tommy admitted, “I forget.”)
Next, Kinney described a moment from Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules, when Greg’s mother embarrasses her son by dancing in front of his friends. (You can probably see where this is going.) Here, Kinney invited a number of bold parents onstage to compete in a dance-off. The parent with the best moves, Chris, won a private tour with his family and three friends of Kinney’s studio above his bookstore, An Unlikely Story, in Plainville, Mass. Kinney said, after watching the contest, “That was painful.”
Budding artist Chase joined Kinney for a round of “Drawing with Jeff.” After a tutorial from the author on how to draw Manny, Chase put pen to iPad. Kinney then tried to draw his character blindfolded, eliciting laughter. Finally, he pulled a trick that could have come from the Greg Heffley playbook, copying and pasting Chase’s signature beside his own, lopsided drawing. Kinney told kids, “If you mess up, the best thing you can do is blame someone else.”
It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Discussing his journey to becoming a writer, Kinney said, “What I love to do most of all is to put books in the hands of kids. I think that’s a sacred act.”
For the grand finale, Kinney selected two kids from the audience to serve as team captains in a “Battle Royale” inspired by the epic snowball fight in The Meltdown. The author even called on a few adults to be on his team against the children. A free-for-all ensued. The only rule: “no yellow snow.”
Discussing his latest book with PW, Kinney said, “I think of it as the war book. It’s about conflict and what happens when a neighborhood is under duress—in this case, because of a snowstorm.” He added, “What I’m always trying to do is to get at something authentic about being a kid.” And, on the subject of any political resonance in light of the recent election, he said, “It was definitely hard not to think about those things—since we’re talking about them every day. I’m not making specific commentary, but the elements are all there.”
Following the performance, fans had the opportunity to meet the author and take photos. Kinney said of the show, “It’s really exciting to me that hundreds of kids are coming out each night to see an author speak. That means that they’re excited, and that their parents value it. I think we need more nights like that, when parents are having this kind of cultural moment with their kids.”
After the curtain went down on another day of the tour, Kinney and his team set out for their next stop: Scranton, Pa.