Jeff Kinney on the Universality of Childhood

Jeff Kinney on the Universality of Childhood

Happy Wimpy Kid Month, readers! April marks the 10 year anniversary of Jeff Kinney’s blockbuster series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The celebrations come to an exciting close on the weekend of April 28, when Kinney will be honored at the Newburyport Literary Festival. Bookish is sponsoring the festival, and our team will be on-site participating in two panels (On My Own and Mommy Dearest), connecting with readers, and chatting with authors. Before we head to Newburyport, we had the chance to catch up with Kinney to talk about humor, technology, and how childhood never really changes.


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Bookish: Happy Wimpy Kid Month! The Wimpy Kid series is 10 years old this April. You’ve influenced and interacted with so many readers over the last decade. Do you have a memory of an interaction that sticks out in your mind?

Jeff Kinney: The times that stick out in my mind are when it’s really clear that the kid’s life has been impacted by the series. Those are my favorite memories. One time, a mother and son came up to me on a long signing line. She had her hands on his shoulders, and the kid just kind of nodded to me. His eyes welled up with tears, and his mom’s eyes welled up with tears too. They didn’t say a word, but I could tell that these books had made an impact on this kid. It was very cool.

Bookish: You say your books are about joke delivery rather than plot. What is your favorite joke that you’ve come up with? Has there ever been a joke that you loved that was cut or didn’t fit into one of the books?

JK: My best joke ever was probably when Fregley hands Greg a note and there’s a booger on the page. It’s not really highbrow stuff, but that’s as good as it gets.

Every so often there will be a joke that bounces from book to book to book before finally making it in. One joke that bounced four or five times was a simple joke about yearbook photos. Everyone in the school had chosen a standard photo, and Greg was the only one who chose a natural setting. So you see Greg sitting in a tree.

Bookish: When writing a book, you’ve said that you spend six months coming up with about 350 jokes and those jokes eventually shape and form the novel. What is your process for creating a good joke? Do you derive inspiration from any specific source?

JK: Usually my process is to take really long walks or go off by myself and do a lot of concentrated thinking. With this next book I’m really going to be approaching things differently. I’m writing about airplane travel, airports, and resorts. So I’m actually going to take all of the elements of those settings and I’m just going to remove things. I’m going to subtract things to see if I can get humor out of it.

Bookish: You also own a bookstore called An Unlikely Story. What do you think the key is to a good book recommendation?

JK: I think the key to a good recommendation is that the bookseller knows the customer, when they’ve developed a relationship. That’s the best element, when the bookseller understands and knows what the customer is like, what they’ve liked before, what they haven’t. That’s how you make a good recommendation.

Bookish: You’ve said that you want your books to feel like they could’ve happened 20 years ago or 20 years from now. How do you balance writing stories that appeal to and feature modern kids without letting technology date the book?

JK: That’s a great question. That’s a constant challenge for me because technology has really infused itself into kids’ lives, especially in the past two or three years, in a way that it never had before. So my books run the risk of feeling archaic by not mentioning technology more.

But I’m really interested in the universality of childhood. I think we are all living the same lives as our parents and our grandparents, just at different times. The circumstances have changed a little, but the basics are all there: We all grow up with parents and bullies and teachers and homework and tests. We share the same types of challenges, and that’s where the humor in my books lies, in that commonality.

Bookish: When it comes to children’s literacy, what do adults need to understand before giving a child a book?

JK: When trying to get a child to read, I think the most important thing is that the adult understands the child’s interests. If you feed a child’s interests, even if you don’t share them, then reading really takes root as a pleasurable act.

For example, my younger son loves sports, so we’ve always given him books about all sports. He has books about baseball, basketball, hockey, football, sports he hasn’t played. That’s what got him reading, and now he’s branched out. I think that’s the way it has to happen.

Bookish: We’re seeing storytelling evolve in so many ways—from personal videos on YouTube or Snapchat to intricate narratives in video games and crossover material where novels intersect with games or movies. Where do you see storytelling taking us in the future?

JK: I think some of the best storytelling is done in video games. There’s an added challenge for the programmers to create a great narrative, but to also give the player a choice. I think that story is at the root of everything, from television commercials to books to newspaper articles. Story is what we seek out. Whatever the medium is, whatever the technology is, there’s always a need for good content.

Bookish: There’s a rumor that a Wimpy Kid television series is in the works. Is that true?

JK: Yes. We’re working right now on a television series, so I hope that will come to fruition and hopefully in the next year or two we’ll be able to develop that.

Bookish: What’s one fundamental thing about childhood that you think was true years ago and will continue to be true years from now?

JK: There’s an age, right around the middle school age, where a kid understands two things: They understand that they’re smart enough to make choices that will guide their lives but that they’re also powerless because all of the big choices are made for them. In my books, that’s where the root of the humor lies. Wimpy Kid started off in the title as a physical designation but really it speaks to a powerlessness that kids at this age have.

Bookish: You have two sons of your own. How has being a parent influenced your writing?

JK: Being a parent has given me a second crack at childhood. I was basing all of my books on my experiences as a child, but as a parent I get to see my sons’ childhoods play out and that definitely gives me a spark. I guess I won’t get my next spark until they have kids of their own.

Jeff Kinney is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and six-time Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award winner for Favorite Book. Jeff has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. He is also the creator of Poptropica, which was named one of Time magazine’s 50 Best Websites. He spent his childhood in the Washington, D.C., area and moved to New England in 1995. Jeff lives with his wife and two sons in Plainville, Massachusetts, where they own a bookstore, An Unlikely Story.

Kelly Gallucci
Far too busy rereading the Harry Potter series, Kelly finds that her greatest literary sin is that she neglected to read classics like The Shining and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In between overseeing the editorial content for Bookish, holding interviews with authors like Leigh Bardugo and Victoria Schwab, and creating book recommendations for Kanye West—Kelly’s trying to catch up on the books she missed out on. She just finished The Great Gatsby and might be in love with Fitzg. Kelly received her B.A. in English Writing from Marist College and her M.A. in Screenwriting from National University of Ireland, Galway. She is a Gryffindor.

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