“I originally wrote Diary of a Wimpy Kid for adults”: Jeff Kinney. Excerpts from an FB Live with the author
Jeff Kinney, author of the wildly popular Wimpy Kid series of children’s books, who delivered the Penguin Annual Lecture 2016 in Delhi on December 6, spoke to Manjula Narayan. Excerpts from a wide-ranging chat on FB LiveUpdated: Dec 10, 2016 08:39 IST
What’s been your experience with kids and your books?
I think kids usually discover my books around seven or eight. Once they are nine they really understand the books. They read them until about 13, when they grow out of them. But it’s cool. With kids, the first thing you do is expose them to picture books; they are very colourful, these big pages, very friendly. Then we expect kids to read chapter books. It’s a big jump between reading for fun and reading as work. What the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books do is that they provide that bridge in between, where they can see that it’s more serious reading, that you have to work to read this book, but there are these drawings that provide moments of relief and comedy. I think that there should be a lot more books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid that help transition kids.
What’s the process behind each book?
The process starts right 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 for about four or five months and then, in May, I take all the jokes, and then I start writing the actual manuscript. That takes about a month. Then, I do my illustrations, which takes two months but it’s like 13-17 hour days for about two months; it’s really difficult. And then I go on tour and the whole cycle starts again.
So which has been the most difficult book to write?
They’ve all been difficult in a way. Book 10, which came out last year, was actually extraordinarily difficult. We had a very strange situation. I was already late on my deadline and I was working on my book and we decided to take a break and take my son to the movies. While I was at the movies, a small plane crashed into the house next to mine and it became national news. It just set our world upside down. In the mean time, while this whole thing was going on, I had to try to write the book! So that was a difficult one to pull off.
Growing up who was your favourite author?
My favourite author, growing up, I really liked Judy Blume, she wrote realistic fiction for kids in the States and I also liked Beverly Cleary, and I really liked JRR Tolkien who wrote The Hobbit.
According to you what’s an ideal children’s book?
The best children’s books are the ones that cause the kids to reach a little bit. When my son started to read Percy Jackson, I thought he was a little too young for the themes. But when you write in an aspirational sort of way and you hope your audience will meet you there and I think that that’s what causes growth with the reader, maturity. It’s a little bit out of their range and then they read it and then they absorb it and they can move on to more sophisticated material. I like the Percy Jackson books for that reason.
(Question from audience member Qassid Siddiqui) Were you a notorious kid too?
I was worse than Greg Heffley. I was more devious than Greg. But his misfortunes are exaggerated for comedy. I was a little more of a twerp.
(Comment from audience member Rekha Guruswamy) My kid’s a fan but I try to keep him away because of the casual impact; sometimes I cringe.
When I originally wrote Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I wrote it for adults. I spent about eight years working on it. So I was surprised when my publisher said, ‘You know what? This would work as a children’s series.’ I was a little 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, characters like that. I think you like to see somebody behaving badly because you know you can’t really do that. And you like to see somebody punished for behaving badly. 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. I stand by the books; I’m not concerned with corrupting youth! (laughs)