Children’s author Jeff Kinney was not exactly a model student during his years at the University of Maryland. He was a cartoonist for The Diamondback, and more often than not, focused on his duties at the paper over his class assignments.
“I could either do this term paper that one person was going to read or do this comic that thousands of people were going to read,” Kinney said. “So my grades started slipping, but I had found my calling.”
The calling that Kinney found is now known as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a series of “novel[s] in cartoons,” as they’re described on the covers, about an under-achieving middle schooler named Greg Heffley. With 10 books currently out and an eleventh on it’s way Nov. 1, the series is printed in 52 languages and has sold over 180 million copies.
Perhaps the greatest success of Wimpy Kid is its audience: the primary demographic is elementary and middle school-aged boys, described by their parents as “reluctant readers.” Kinney’s combination of witty storytelling and cartoons are the perfect match for someone who finds an entire book of “just words” daunting.
Kinney returned to the UMD campus for the first time in five years Thursday night for a presentation at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in partnership with the College of Education. Along with Dean Donna L. Wiseman and a panel of literacy experts from the college, Kinney discussed ways that educators could utilize graphic novels and cartoons like Wimpy Kid to motivate reluctant readers in the classroom.
He recalled his own experiences studying in college. Though he was an avid reader as a kid, textbooks were difficult to read. Kinney found that the best way to push himself to absorb the material was to use pictures as checkpoints, which he referred to as “islands of light.”
“I do the same thing I needed as a college student,” Kinney said. “I give [readers] tiny little islands to swim to.”
But despite his great success as a children’s author, Kinney initially meant for Wimpy Kid to be a “nostalgia piece for adults to look back and remember.” Even now, he tries not to write with his young audience in mind.
“I discounted the idea that kids might get it,” Kinney said of his original story concept. “And if they don’t get it, it’s almost as good. There’s something aspirational about it.”
In true cartoon character fashion, Greg Heffley has been a middle-schooler for nearly 10 years, though Kinney was still able to draw from his own college experiences for storylines.
“Very little is true in fact, but most is true in spirit,” Kinney said. “I think the better ideas come from real life.”
With a character going through one of the most awkward, embarrassing stages of his life, Kinney kept his own embarrassing memories in the back of his mind. As a UMD student, he was a member of Gymkana, a gymnastics group on campus that often performs during halftime at basketball games. Kinney recalled a performance when he was supposed to flip over six people piled on top of each other, but panicked when Maryland’s mascot, Testudo, joined the pile. The costume made the pile too tall for Kinney to jump over.
“I just had to go for it,” he said. “I did a half flip and crushed all those people.”
The whole thing happened in front of a Maryland vs. Duke crowd, no less.
In his newest Wimpy Kid book, called “Double Down,” Greg’s mom goes back to college. Kinney’s mother, Patricia, who introduced Jeff at the event, said she used to bring a young Jeff along with her when she was getting her doctorate in education at UMD. He would find ways to entertain himself in McKeldin Library while she was in class.
“I’m excited to see the fans,” Kinney said after the presentation on the book’s release. “When I write, I write in isolation. I write in a little town called Plainville, Mass. and I don’t have any sense of the audience at all. And I’m filled with doubt and self-loathing while I’m doing it and thinking, ‘Can I ever write another joke again?’ So to go out there in the world and see kids holding the book and enjoying it is a really special moment. And it’s a little scary, actually.”
And now book 12 is now in the works. Kinney said this one surrounds holiday travel.
“Something like ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’” he said. “I’m really excited about that because I think it’ll make a really good movie.”
Kinney has a pretty good sense of how well his books can be translated onto the big screen. Three Wimpy Kid movies premiered in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and were named after the first, second and fourth books but included plot lines from several others.
Now a fourth movie is being filmed with an all-new cast (the original Greg Heffley, Zachary Gordon, is now 18). Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul is scheduled for release May 19, 2017 and follows the Heffley family on a road trip.
“This one is more epic,” Kinney said. “The canvas is bigger… We’re using wider lenses, the locations are very varied and I think it’s going to be a very special movie.”
Kinney has been on set for all four films— a decision that many authors, like Rick Riordan, who wrote the “Percy Jackson” series, opt to shy away from.
“As an author, you really have to choose whether you’re going to be all the way in or all the way out,” Kinney said. “And it’s hard to be all the way in and it’s hard to be all the way out… It’s a challenging experience. You go from being in complete control on the page to really sharing the control or relinquishing the control, in many cases… In my books, I control everything from the weight of the pages to the type of ink used on the front cover and then when you go to the movie set, there’s hundreds of people working on this project and it’s the director’s medium, not the author’s medium.”
Through all of his current projects, Kinney remembers that all of his success started on the College Park campus when The Diamondback hired him as a cartoonist. When he got the call, Kinney said he jumped out of his chair, hit the ceiling and nearly broke his hand out of excitement.
“It really took over my life and I think that my grades really suffered for it, but I’m happy for that experience,” Kinney said. “If I didn’t cut my teeth, I wouldn’t have been able to make the progress I made afterwards.”