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Jeff Kinney on his rise from ‘Wimpy Kid’ to celebrated children’s author

Transcript

Geoff Bennett: Time now for our "Weekend Spotlight," with bestselling children's author Jeff Kinney.

This month marks 15 years since "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" made Kinney one of the world's most popular writers. I spoke to him about his start in children's literature and the mark he's left.

Jeff Kinney is a literary superstar among pre-teens and their parents. His bestselling book series, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," tracks the the misadventures of middle-schooler Greg Heffley, sketched as a skinny boy with a round head, semi-permanent frown, and precious few strands of hair.

Its 16 installments have been translated into 65 languages and inspired a film adaptation.

There are now more than 250 million copies of the series in print worldwide. I spoke with Jeff Kinney this week about his unexpected path to international success.

So, as I understand it, you did not set out to be a children's author.

Jeff Kinney, Children's Book Author: I didn't. I set out to be a newspaper cartoonist, and that seems a little antiquated at the moment, in a way.

But that was my big dream. When I was in college -- I went to the University of Maryland at College Park -- I was -- I had a comic in the daily paper, circulation of about 30,000. And I got really addicted to that. And that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But when I went out into the real world, I found out, you know, I had a lot of doors closed in my face, and I had to find another way.

Geoff Bennett: So what did you set out to accomplish when you wrote the first book?

Jeff Kinney: I just wanted to have my cartoons in print in some way. So I actually worked on "Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the first book, for about eight or nine years before I showed it to anyone at all. And I had a 1,300 page first draft that I then brought out into the world.

Geoff Bennett: And how did you go about creating this world of middle-schooler Greg Heffley?

Jeff Kinney: Well, I was a bit of a wimpy kid when I was growing up. I actually was an average kid, but I had really wimpy moments. For example, when I was on the swim team, I used to hide out from the swim coach every single day in the locker room. And I'd get so cold sitting in that stall that I'd wrap myself in toilet paper to stay warm.

I think that's where Greg Heffley was born. And I knew that there were these comic moments, these shameful moments from my past that might give people a laugh.

Geoff Bennett: And I think that's why so many kids connect with this book. I mean, Greg Heffley is not defined by heroics. He's not a superhero. He's just a regular kid, flaws and all.

Brady Noon, Voice Actor Playing Greg Heffley in "Diary of a Wimpy Kid": Yep, I'm pretty sure I'm going to be in therapy over this.

Jeff Kinney: A lot of kids in children's literature, the protagonists are like miniature adults, and they always do the right thing. They're brave. They're aspirational characters. While I was writing "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," I was actually reading "Harry Potter," and Harry's brave. He's magical. He's powerful. He's famous. He's all the things that I was not. So I wanted to create a character who was more like me.

And if you look at Greg on the cover of the book, he's got a frown on just about every cover. And, you know, he looks like he's not having an easy time of things. And I think the books would be really different if Greg looked, you know, happy or joyful or strong on the covers. I think that kids wouldn't reach for the books as much.

Geoff Bennett: Is there anything that you try to teach kids through the character of Greg Heffley?

Jeff Kinney: I'm really trying to teach kids to laugh at their own circumstances. I like to think of my books as being very similar to what a stand-up comedian does. They stand on the stage; they make themselves vulnerable; and they're relatable. And we're laughing along with them because we can see ourselves in -- in those comedians.

Geoff Bennett: Kinney's illustrations are simple, and his stories about the absurdities and indignities of middle school life are straightforward, relying on stinky, gross-out humor that appeals equally to boys and girls.

Jeff Kinney: You know, we found that girls are much bigger readers than boys. So it doesn't surprise me that a lot of girls read my books. When I first started putting my book out there, I started getting e-mails from teachers and parents who said, "My reluctant reader really loves these books."

And I've come to understand that "reluctant reader" can sometimes mean code for boys. So...

... you know, a lot of boys, it's -- it's difficult getting them to pick up a book, but once they get a good book in their hands, they're hooked.

Geoff Bennett: I asked my son -- I said, "Do you have a question for Mr. Kinney?"

And he said, "When's the next book coming out?" So...

Jeff Kinney: I always have a book that comes out in the fall. And I think there is something really special about that. A cartoon character is like a promise. You know, we -- we expect our cartoon characters to stick around. And that's why the best cartoon characters don't just last for years; they last for -- for decades. Because they're one thing in life that can be really reliable.

Geoff Bennett: What's it feel like to be in this privileged position where what you write reaches millions of kids across the world?

Jeff Kinney: At this point right now, if I write a book and it's not very good, still millions of kids will read it.

So I don't take that privilege lightly. And in fact, that's what really motivates me, because I know that there's an expectation that these books are good. And so I feel like it's a responsibility and I'm doing my best to -- to live up to that responsibility.

Geoff Bennett: Jeff Kinney, happy 15th anniversary of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

Jeff Kinney: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

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