Greg Heffley may not be a popular kid at his middle school, but millions of young-adult readers around the world number him among their best friends. They’ve bonded with Greg over the years in books and movies as he and his friends have navigated the terrors of perpetual middle school and adolescent life in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” a “novel in cartoons” series by award-winning author-illustrator Jeff Kinney.
The series has become so popular that this year a giant Greg Heffley balloon will be part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The newest title in the eight-book series is “Hard Luck” (Amulet, $13.95, 224 pages), which the publisher describes this way: “Greg is on a losing streak. His best friend has ditched him, and finding new friends in middle school is a tough task. To change his fortunes, Greg decides to turn his decisions over to chance. Will a roll of the dice turn things around?”
“Hard Luck” had a first U.S. printing of 5.5 million copies, a hefty addition to the 115 million copies of the series already in print worldwide. For a sneak peek, go to www.wimpykid.com.
The Bee caught up with Kinney, 42, by phone at his home in Plainville, Mass., where he lives with his wife, Julie, and their two sons, Will, 10, and Grant, 8.
You have such empathy for children. Are you really a kid at heart?
I think so. I have a more acute memory of my childhood than my sons seem to, and I’m more connected to childhood than most other adults seem to be.
That seems ironic, in that the first “Wimpy Kid” was not aimed at a young audience.
I actually wrote it for adults. My father read newspaper comics and comic books, and in my thinking, comics were for grown-ups. So when I wrote (the first) “Wimpy Kid,” I was trying to reach (adults) who enjoy remembering what it was like to be kids.
What about your own reading history?
I grew up in what was sort of the golden age of newspaper cartoons – “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Bloom County” – and I read a lot of comic books, too, (including) “Donald Duck” and “Uncle Scrooge.” Then (books by) Judy Blume, Piers Anthony and J.R.R. Tolkien.
The “Wimpy” series has been credited with getting reluctant readers into books.
Yeah, it’s exciting to think my books turn kids into readers, but there are other writers who can stake that same claim, including Dav Pilkey and his “Captain Underpants.”
Greg Heffley makes things hard on himself. Anything different in “Hard Luck”?
He shows the selfish side in all of us, so I was surprised that he’s more sympathetic in this book than in others. It has a bona-fide happy ending, something I haven’t done before.
It takes you about nine months to put together a book. Which is more difficult – the writing or the drawing?
It’s more fun to draw. It’s therapeutic, like sewing or a similar hobby, but I have to draw about 14 hours a day, so it’s stressful and the fun is taken out of it. Writing jokes and coming up with humorous situations is very difficult. The most satisfying thing to do is come up with a joke I know is a winner. If I have a handful of those, I can build a good book around them.
As you tour, do you get many ideas from your audiences?
I wish, but for some strange reason, I’m not able to pick up ideas in that way. They usually come to me by living my normal life around home. Every so often, my kids will do or say something that gives me an idea, but a lot less often than you’d think. What does give me ideas are programs that schools put on, like ones to award kids for being kind to one another. That inspired a segment in “Hard Luck.”
Are kids the same the world over?
It really seems they are, and that’s been a surprise. I’ve been all over (the U.S.) and to Italy, Brazil, Australia and many other places, and kids seem to have the same reactions and connections to the “Wimpy Kid” characters everywhere I go. ... Kids aren’t seeing themselves so much as they’re seeing characters who are recognizable to them. Sometimes when adults write for kids, they create characters who are just miniature adults. I try to create a universe of believable children who feel like real kids.
You have said, “There’s a lot of my childhood DNA in the stories.” What were your own middle school years like?
My junior high school years were a lot tougher than what Greg and his friends experience. I grew up in Port Washington, Md., and my school was on the rough side, so it was scary being an undersized kid like I was. But the middle schools I’ve visited as an author seem safer. The teachers and parents are more aware of bullying, but it’s tougher (for students) in other ways, like being bullied outside of school on social media. It’s a double-edged sword.
Do your sons identify with the “Wimpy Kid” books?
My older one (Will) did for a little while. Like Greg, he was an indoor child, but suddenly rejected that identity and became a right sporty kid. You never know where your kids are going to end up.
What’s your best advice to your audience?
Middle school won’t last forever, and things will only get better.
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.