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Story of the weak

Jeff Kinney's 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' draws on relatable school experiences

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / April 7, 2008

PLAINVILLE - He lives in an ordinary, all-American sort of place, much like the unnamed setting of his best-selling book, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." Jeff Kinney's phenomenal novel-in-cartoons plots the everyday life of a regular boy in the sort of school situation that readers of any age might recognize.

But there's nothing ordinary about his success.

Since it was published last year, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" has spent 47 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list for children's chapter books, with more than 1 million copies in print. Vol. 2, "Rodrick Rules," appeared last month with a first printing of 250,000, and bumped its predecessor to second place on the list. Three more installments are planned. Meanwhile, a movie by Nina Jacobson, who oversaw production of "Pirates of the Caribbean," is in the works.

Through all the excitement, the 37-year-old author and artist of "Wimpy Kid" has kept his day job and tried to keep his head on straight. "I'm still stuck at the starting point," Kinney, a married father of two, said during an interview in his toy-filled little house. "I'm absolutely shocked that the book even got published."

"Diary of a Wimpy Kid" is the di ary of Greg Heffley, a student of unspecified age and grade in an unnamed middle school. The text appears handwritten on lined paper, and the episodic narrative is supplemented by simple cartoons, also by Greg. He is a crafty kid, trying to navigate school and family life, while avoiding the bullies who pick on him. His schemes for improving his status - running for class treasurer, becoming a crosswalk-guard, or making money with a Halloween haunted house - usually backfire.

Kinney majored in computer science and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, but what he really wanted to be was a syndicated comic-strip artist. He wrote a strip called "Igdoof" in The Diamondback, his college paper. When The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun ran stories about the strip, Kinney said, "I thought, 'I'm on my way,' but the truth is that my drawing was not good enough for prime time."

After college, he came to Massachusetts in 1995 and took a job as a layout artist at the Newburyport Daily News, moved on to a medical software company, then in 2000 became a computer-game designer for Pearson, the British-based book publisher. Today he manages two Pearson game sites, Poptropica.com and Funbrain.com. He and wife Julie have two sons - Will, 5, and Grant, 2.

Though he had a fun job in a blossoming field, Kinney never gave up his cartooning dream. In 1998 he had begun working on "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," eventually filling notebooks with enough stories for five volumes. "I wrote it for adults," he said, "and never thought that it would be for a kids' audience." In 2004 he had the idea of putting the first three volumes of the epic on Funbrain.com, where it is still free to visitors. "I released it in daily installments for about a year," he said, "about 1,300 pages. By the time I was done, I had about 20 million unique readers."

'Lots of messages'

"Wimpy Kid" is a blend of the remembered and the imagined. "I did a lot of remembering, and a lot of inventing, about what it was like to be a kid at that age, with a sort of amoral moralism," Kinney said. "There are a lot of instances in the book where Greg thinks he has learned his lesson or done the right thing, when it's clear to the reader that he hasn't." Adults in the book are well-meaning but dim. "Part of the fun is that you expect an adult to come in at any moment and set things straight, but one never does."

Though the stories are comic, Greg's predicament is serious - he's powerless to alter the situation that adults have placed him in. One well-founded fear is of being picked on; the book is full of ugly bullies, though no one gets hurt. "I don't think anyone looks back fondly on middle school days," Kinney said. "It's an awful time for everyone, except for the biggest kid. It's the only level in school where some kids are literally twice as big as others."

The line drawings are carefully thought out. "There are lots of messages," he said. "The girls are always drawn exactly the same, except for their hair, but the boys all look grossly different from one another. It's a message to the reader that Greg 'gets' boys but doesn't 'get' girls, so he draws them all the same." He omitted references to current popular culture and minimized technology - no iPods or Game Boys in the cartoons - so that the story would not seem dated to future readers: "There is no sense of place or time," said Kinney. "It could have happened 20 years ago or today."

After years of rejections by publishers, in 2006 Kinney carried a batch of samples to Comic-Con in New York, the international comic-book show. "I got a very cold shoulder," he said. "I was leaving the exhibition hall, when I stopped at the Abrams booth [publisher Harry N. Abrams] and met Charlie Kochman." A comic-book publishing veteran, Kochman had recently joined Abrams as senior editor. "I showed him my samples," Kinney said, "he looked at it for less than a minute, and said, 'This is exactly what we're looking for and why we're here.' "

Speaking by phone from New York, Kochman explained why the work grabbed his interest: "It was a combination of the title and image on the cover -Greg with the weight of the world and his backpack on his shoulders. Jeff's voice is uncanny. He was able to capture the voice of a child and communicate that to kids in a way that is totally relatable. I thought the art was incredible - simple but not at all simplistic. It's hard to distill action and emotion to the fewest number of lines. Look at [Charles Schulz's] 'Peanuts' - it's haiku. I was at DC Comics and Mad magazine for 12 years. I always wanted to grow kids into reading comics and then get them into other stuff. If we can get kids to read a book that is well-done, we could hook them for life."

Reader response

Fourth- and fifth-graders are the book's largest audience, with readers as young as second grade, Kinney said. He has been swamped by e-mail from kids and adults. While some parents deplore the absence of disapproving judgment of Greg's behavior, others wrote to Kinney to say that his book was a godsend.

One such parent was Dayna White of Plainview, Texas, a high-school English teacher with an 8-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. "Evan reads - both the children do - but we had not been able to interest him in fiction," White said. "I would bring books home, and he would read the first two chapters, then want to move on." One day they were looking at Funbrain.com when they noticed "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." "I ordered the book, and Evan took it to his bedroom, read it in one day and loved it. This just opened the door. He has read a couple of other novels since then."

The same happened with fourth-grader Giancarlo Iona, 10, of Lafayette Hill, Pa. "He saw it on Funbrain.com, and he asked me to get it," said his mother, Tara Iona. "He stayed up all night reading it. He has ADHD and doesn't love to read. I was shocked and happy that he liked something that much." Giancarlo got on the phone and explained: "It was really funny. It was easier for me to read, and I liked reading it, with the pictures. I've got my whole class into it."

While he is hard at work on volumes four and five of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" and trying to handle the demands of success, Kinney says he is determined not to neglect his own kids, or to let his creation take over his life. "That is why I'm keeping my full-time job," he said. "The things we're doing with digital publishing are so exciting, and that's what made 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' possible to begin with. I don't want to be designing pillowcases with Greg Heffley's face on them for the rest of my life."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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