Jeff Kinney is one of the world’s most successful children’s authors of all time and his Diary of a Wimpy Kid books have sold over 200 million copies. The author has met three presidents and has even attracted the attention of the Pope after his books were translated into Latin. In an interview with the BBC, Kinney discusses the popularity of his books, and his efforts to get kids away from screens.
The first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book made its debut in 2004 and has since evolved into a series that now spans 13 books which are available across 140 countries. The cartoon artwork and handwritten font follows a middle-scholar named Greg and his best friend Rowley. The books follow their adventures whilst also aiming to encourage young children, particularly boys, to read.
“I feel a huge responsibility to encourage literacy,” said Kinney. “I see that the more people read, the higher their quality of life is and it turns them into lifelong readers.”
Kinney went on to say that he’s been shocked to find many children in the US “don’t have a single book in their home”.
“People underestimate how valuable a kid finds a book,” he said, explaining he has organised book fairs where children can take home three books each. “The kids are so surprised when they realise they can keep them. Books are seen very much as a treasured object.”
Though Kinney is a vocal advocate for encouraging children to read, he admits it’s still a challenge to get his own children away from TV and mobile screens. “They are like most kids,” he told the BBC, “you have to prod them to read”.
“We are victorious if they spend less than five hours a day on screens at the weekend,” he joked.
Kinney first conceived the idea for his books in 1998, but it would be another eight years before he presented it to a publisher. Twenty years later and Kinney has no intentions of slowing down. He believes he has at least seven more books in him as he would like to round the series off at 20. “I am aiming to write 20 – that’s my hope,” he said. He went on to note that having cartoon characters frozen in time makes writing them much easier. “I realised around book five that these are cartoon characters, so they don’t have to age. People don’t want cartoon characters to change. Bart Simpson has been around for 25 years – and still going strong.”
When he’s not working on his hugely popular series, Kinney runs his a book shop in Plainville, Massachusetts, where he resides. He originally opened the store as he felt the town “needed a facelift”, and it has since been visited by other notable authors, including children’s author David Walliams.
The Wimpy Kid series is also being adapted into an animated series. “I have written two episodes so far,” said Kinney. “I am trying to get at the truth of childhood and to make it as deep as it can be considering it’s a cartoon TV show.”
It seems that truthfulness regarding childhood is what makes Kinney’s books strike such a chord among readers. “The root of it all is childhood experiences,” he said. Regarding the books popularity overseas, Kinney noted; “We have a lot more in common country to country than we might think. We share the same childhood in many ways all over the world. It’s really excited me over the past few years, that kids in Turkey, China and New Zealand all see something in my books.”
Kinney went on to discuss how being aware of his worldwide audience has influenced his writing. “In the past, when I first started writing the series, I would have told a Thanksgiving story or a Christmas story,” he explained “but they aren’t inclusive so I try to avoid that now – perhaps make it a birthday one instead.”
As a Catholic, Kinney said he was “stunned” when he was shown a picture of the Pope examining one of his books following its translation into Latin. “I love that photo,” he said, going on to point out how moments like that, including the time he met Barack Obama, as being “weirdly out of joint” with his family life in small-town America.
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