The 11th book in Jeff Kinney’s multimillion-selling Wimpy Kid series is due for release this November, even though the author had considered giving up after book 10.
“After Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School [the last book, released in November 2015] I took a pause and was thinking about the future,” he says. “Should I continue? Or should I stop and do something else?”
Luckily for primary school-age children all over the world, he decided there was life in the franchise yet, and came up with a storyline for Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down, in which the hero (Greg) decides to make a film.
The plot kicks off when Greg’s mother decides to go back to school to better herself, and so encourages her kids to better themselves too. Specifically, she wants to “transform Greg from a consumer into a creator”, says Kinney, hence why he tries to become a filmmaker. The book is set during Halloween, which is why Greg makes a horror film with his best friend, and is “a lot of fun, a little bit wild, and different from the other books in the series”, the author claims.
There are also more serious reflections on life and death, including a touching passage where Greg wonders what his relatives in heaven think when they look down on him. “A lot of people think the books are about school but they’re really not. What I’m trying to do is write about childhood, looking at it from every angle. The types of things kids think about but don’t really articulate, that’s what I’m interested in.”
The big draw
Kinney’s career as a children’s author and illustrator came out of his failed attempt at becoming a newspaper cartoonist. Deciding he needed another outlet for his creativity, he conceived the idea of a child writing a diary with “cartoon DNA”.
Although he pitched the idea as an adult book, the first title (published by Abrams in 2007) was sold as a children’s title and within two weeks it was in the bestseller lists. The series is now sold in more than 53 editions in 50 languages, meaning there are more than 165 million books in the series in print around the world, according to his UK publisher Penguin Random House Children’s.
However, despite Kinney’s success (he earned $19.5m last year, according to Forbes), he says he is “always” nervous when writing the next book. “I feel like this one is a strong book but you can never predict what is going to happen in the market. There are big series that have almost inexplicably gone belly up almost overnight. I’m enjoying the ride with the full knowledge that can happen one day.”
Just before the release of Double Down he will set off on a world tour, visiting fans in 20 different locations, including the UK (where his event will take place on the “Strictly Come Dancing” finale stage set), India, France, Israel, South Korea and the Philippines. Kinney says he is getting “more and more comfortable” with being on stage, even though he’s not a “natural performer”.
He is also quite surprised that readers from all over the world have very similar reactions to his books. “It would be hard to tell what country I was in based on [fans’] reactions alone. The conclusion I’ve come to is that these books are about childhood and the DNA of our childhoods is pretty similar, there is maybe a 70% or 80% overlap between people of different cultures. Most of us have siblings, parents and homework.”
The success of Wimpy Kid has meant Kinney has been able to develop a number of other projects and interests. He is still a creative director at PopTropica, the virtual world he created in 2006, and this year he wrote the first two drafts of a script for the fourth Wimpy Kid film, which started filming this autumn. He has in recent months worked on a script for a Wimpy Kid TV show and contributed to “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Musical”. He hopes the latter will end up on Broadway, and perhaps even London’s West End.
He is also kept busy by running the bookshop An Unlikely Story, which he opened in Plainville, Massachusetts last year. “Running a bookstore is a tough business,” he says. “It’s tough making money but we’re off on the right foot. The most exciting thing is that nearly every week we have a nationally or internationally known author coming in and it’s been edifying to meet all these bright, creative people.”
He is not, however, giving up on writing Wimpy Kid books any time soon, and despite his earlier doubts, he can envisage there being at least 20 books in the series. “I’m only about halfway through. If I can keep them fresh, I will definitely keep going. I’m committed to this series.”
Editor: Amanda Punter and Carmen McCullough
This article was originally published in The Booskeller magazine on 30th September 2016.