The first time I heard of Jeff Kinney was when my younger son, then aged 10, and his gang of raucous friends, excitedly discussed the Wimpy Kid books. There was much laughter and the prattle session ended with an exchange of titles. Having never before seen the child show any interest in the written word, I was intrigued enough to flip through the books. Packed with jokes, deceptively simple illustrations, the series centres around Greg Heffley, an American middle school kid with issues that even a boy growing up in Gurgaon, far, far away from Heffleyland, can identify with. Greg likes comic books and video games and his schemes and irritations feature his family, his friends and ah, girls at school. Why, he could be Everyboy… and he is. Which is probably why the series has sold three million copies in India.
I flashbacked to my own childhood favourite Enid Blyton, she of the midnight picnics with baskets stuffed with buttered scones, that seemed like fantastic gourmet delights to a generation of Indians, dressed in garish Smash T-shirts and fake Levis, growing up in hardscrabble socialist India. I ate my first scone in my early 20s and was saddened by its bland nothingness. Kinney’s devoted Indian readers will never experience that crushing disappointment, that trauma to beat all traumas – the realization that a cherished childhood food fantasy is bereft of all gastronomic sensuousness in its stodgy real life avatar.
The Wimpy Kid series is about a boy’s relationships. As a result, they’ll age better than Blyton’s prodigious oeuvre that few children today enjoy.
“Kids usually discover my books around seven or eight. Once they are nine they really understand them. They read them until about 13, when they grow out of them,” says the gangly Jeff Kinney, who is so American, you imagine his favourite dessert is apple pie with ice cream and that he flosses regularly too.
A former newspaper cartoonist, Kinney, who was in India to deliver the 2016 Annual Penguin Lecture on 6 December, believes his books with their “drawings that provide moments of relief and comedy” are a bridge between picture books for little children and the more serious young adult fiction favoured by teenagers. “I think that there should be a lot more books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid that help transition kids,” he said during an FB Live chat.
In person Kinney is relaxed, funny and likeable but, you sense, that like all writers, he has his neurotic side. A side that helps him meet the crazy deadlines that ensure the enormous tween appetite for his books is whetted year after year. “The process (of writing each book) starts at this time of year. Usually I’m touring but in my mind, I’m always going over what’s the next plan. I start writing jokes in January. Then, in May, I take all the 350 jokes and start writing the actual manuscript,” he says. That takes about a month. Next, Kinney packs the illustrations into two months of 17-hour work days. Each drawing – 320 is the ideal figure he’s arrived at per book – takes an hour to do. “It’s a harrowing experience because I have to hit the deadline and if I broke my hand or did something like that I’d be in real trouble,” he says. The hand-breaking fear hovers over Kinney family holidays.
“It’s summer time and I’m on vacation with the kids and maybe we are canoeing or something like that and I’m always afraid that I’m going to have some kind of injury that’s going to make me a month late!” he says. All this talk of intensely sporty American life makes me somewhat embarrassed that the most activity my holidays en famille entail is a leisurely wander about a hill station.
Occasionally, Kinney’s fears about unforeseen interruptions have come true.
“Book 10, which came out last year, was extraordinarily difficult. I was already late on my deadline and we decided to take a break and take my son to the movies,” he says. While they were at the movies, a small plane crashed into the neighbour’s house. “It became national news and it just set our world upside down. And while this whole thing was going on I had to try to write the book. That was a difficult one to pull off!”
Most of the time, though, Kinney maintains his back-breaking schedule. Once the book is “on the press”, he launches into a minor but important ritual – reading the new book to his sons aged 11 and 14. “It’s a good feeling. A lot of parents stop reading to their kids once they can read but kids really get a lot out of hearing the way a book should be read so I really recommend to parents to keep reading to kids long after they know how to read themselves,” he says.
I can’t imagine either of my lumbering teenagers with their china-crashing propensities sitting still long enough for this. “My older one is 14 now and he’s 6 ft 1 -- my height. So yeah, laying in bed next to him is kind of weird. I’m sure he won’t be doing that next year,” Kinney says with that mix of pride and nostalgia, that yearning to hold back Time, that is familiar to parents everywhere.
His own favourite authors growing up, he says, were Judy Blume and Beverley Cleary, who are almost entirely unknown on the subcontinent. “I really liked JRR Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit,” he says. The much loved Roald Dahl – another gift of our colonial experience – never managed, he says, to conquer America “except for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.
Unlike Dahl and JK Rowling too, Kinney does not intend to ever write for adults. “What happened with JK Rowling is that she wrote for kids and then she started writing for adults. I started writing for adults and I found that my audience is kids,” he says, adding that he originally intended for adults to read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
“I spent about eight years working on it. And when I was writing I was thinking about an adult audience, somebody who would like to look back on childhood. So I was surprised when my publisher said, ‘You know what? This would work as a children’s series,” he says. “I was a little bit concerned because Greg is an unreliable narrator, not a great role model but I think kids really get that. What I found is that they are not going to imitate Greg, much in the way they don’t imitate Bart Simpson or Dennis the Menace.”
Kinney believes a vicarious enjoyment in the antics of these incorrigible characters is what makes them so successful. “I think you like to see somebody behaving badly because you know you can’t really do that. And you also like to see somebody punished for behaving badly,” he says. “My books are not morality tales but they allow kids to see their own lives through this character; what could happen if they made certain choices.”
My children have graduated to such exotic reading matter as translated Chinese light novels and Japanese Manga, a world that’s even more removed from the twee one inhabited by the cucumber-sandwich-eating and ginger beer-quaffing fictional characters of my own childhood. But I’m glad they encountered Greg Heffley and introduced him to me too. He’s crazy like all the kids I know but like Holden Kaulfield – that superb 16-year-old from modern American fiction – he makes adults think too – a good thing when you’re old and only slightly wise.