Jeff Kinney: An audience with the king of geek chic

Whatever you call them, his books have made him a best-selling author who rubs shoulders with presidents... much to his surprise. Susie Mesure meets Jeff Kinney

I pity Jeff Kinney's sons. It's hard enough growing up, without worrying that your merest indiscretion might get immortalised in one of the world's best-selling books, especially when said work mocks the exploits of one Greg Heffley, aka the Wimpy Kid.

Such is the peril of having a father who earns his living poking fun at the everyday angst of a boy approaching adolescence, not that the dad in question seems the least bit perturbed.

"It's funny you should ask," he says in his monotone American twang, inviting me to laugh at a story involving his oldest child, a "mock spank", the annual White House Easter Egg Roll and an audience of some 30,000 people.

The sons – aged 10 and 7 – were sitting next to Kinney, 41, during a book reading on the famous lawn. He'd charged them to behave, and thought they'd pulled it off, but a video clip on the White House website suggests otherwise.

"My younger son bends over to look at the book on my lap and my older son seizes the opportunity and mock spanks him. My son is embarrassed when I talk about it but I say, 'Hey, you did it for the public. You have to live with it.'"

The mind boggles at what else the 10-year-old Will might have to live with now that he's approaching the same age as his father's notorious pen-and-ink creation. In the latest instalment of Greg's escapades, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel – which outsold every other book in the UK in the first two weeks it was published – chicken pox, pimples and an inability to score a date for the school dance are just a few of the plights that befall Kinney's anti-hero.

Cringe-worthy stuff but hugely popular: a total of more than 75 million Wimpy Kid books have been sold in more than 44 countries around the world and UK sales top 10 million. Children can't get enough of Heffley's adventures or, rather his misadventures, which generally invite ridicule. The hapless middle child cuts a gauche line between his tougher older brother, Rodrick, and his spoiled younger sibling, Manny, against the backdrop of that trickiest of pre-teenage breeding grounds, the American middle school.

Kinney says his own middle-school years "felt like quarantine", adding: "Most people in America would say that if you missed out those years before High School you wouldn't be missing much." He reckons his eldest will survive by virtue of being quite tall. "He won't be the small kid in the hallway."

It's all been rather a shock for the unassuming web developer, who looks like he was born to live in Plainville, his hometown in Massachusetts, and admits that he only invented the childish-looking character because his drawing style wasn't good enough for him to forge a career as a newspaper cartoonist.

His early work appeared back in 2004 on the educational gaming website where he still works, FunBrain, in the form of short, daily entries from Greg Heffley's diary. It was an instant hit, and a book deal followed three years later. "I did the drawings at the maximum age level that I felt I could credibly draw," Kinney recalls. Five years on, he finds "every moment surreal," gesturing at the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Thames on the 10th floor at the headquarters of his UK publisher, Puffin, where we meet.

"Looking over London with a view to die for is strange and surreal; meeting three presidents is strange; speaking at the Sydney Opera House; at Davos." He is milking his time in the sun, which includes overseeing three blockbuster movie spin-offs, which have made £125m globally. He snaps the chilly scene below him with his iPhone, just before answering questions for a Blue Peter film crew that is following for the day.

Later, he flicks through his shots for my benefit, pausing at the one of him and the Obamas taken after that book reading. That's all the Obamas, down to their dog Bo, and all the Kinneys, including his mum and dad.

"The famous dog was what we had in common," he tells me: like America's first family, the Kinneys own a Portuguese Water Dog, Thunder. "It's a political statement," he deadpans.

Other snaps include one of Kinney, who is on a fleeting UK book tour, pretending to push a luggage trolley through Platform 9 ¾ at King's Cross station in homage to that other fictional marvel, Harry Potter. In fact, it should arguably be JK Rowling heaping the praise on Greg Heffley: Blue Peter viewers recently voted Diary of a Wimpy Kid the best children's book of the past decade, trouncing the boy wizard.

Where Kinney perhaps retains the edge is that the Wimpy Kid will never age, forever freezing him in children's affections. "The character's DNA is in cartoons, and the best cartoon characters don't grow old. There's a suspension of disbelief, so I've decided to keep him the same age forever."

This means Kinney, who works on his creation in his spare time in the house next door to his family home, which he bought with his Wimpy Kid spoils, could keep on churning out Greg's adventures. He says he has at least three more instalments in him, adding to seven already published.

It's obvious his books get children turning pages: those sales stats speak for themselves. This explains why Time magazine named Kinney in its 2009 top 100 influential people poll, much to the writer's amazement.

"I thought it was a joke. If I do have any real influence, it's that kids who pick up my books learn that reading can be fun and rewarding. If you give a kid a book or magazine that speaks to their interests I think you have the best shot of turning them into readers. One reason my books are popular is because they are filled with humour and kids don't think of them as work," he says.

I'm most intrigued by his notion that wimpy kids today have a lot more going for them than when Kinney was young. "In the past 10 years, we've been celebrating all types of people in the world. Even being a geek is cool: there's geek chic," he says. I'm doubtful this extends to spotty wannabe adolescents but Kinney is adamant. "There's a lot more acceptance and understanding in some ways than there used to be. You don't see these overbearing masculine dads trying to turn their wimpy kids into athletic types. I see more understanding for kids that are different and who march to the beat of their own drum," he adds.

Kinney himself ploughs his own furrow, with his text-and-cartoon books straddling the worlds of novels and comics. "I don't feel like a real writer, and I don't feel like a comic artist either." Wherever he sits, his work couldn't be more in vogue given the recent decision to shortlist two graphic works for the Costa book awards.

His sons had better watch out: given the sort of success their father is enjoying, one more false move, especially one recorded for posterity on a YouTube clip, could see the entire world laughing at them.

Curriculum vitae

1971 Born on an air force base in Maryland, USA, he grows up in a suburb of Washington DC. He has a "very normal, very typical" American childhood as one of four siblings (two brothers, one sister). His father worked for the government at the Pentagon, and his mother was an educator.

1990 While studying at the University of Maryland, he creates his first popular comic strip, Igdoof, which ran in the campus newspaper, The Diamondback. Kinney flirts with the notion of becoming a newspaper cartoonist.

1997 Marries Julie. They have two children, Will, and Grant, and live in Plainville, Massachusetts.

2004 By now, Kinney is working on the website FunBrain, where he publishes an online version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which becomes an instant hit and leads to his first book deal.

2007 The first instalment of Greg Heffley's life is published, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, with an initial print run of just 15,000. The book's instant success surprised everyone, not least Kinney.

2009 Time magazine names him one of the year's 100 most influential people. He speaks at the World Economic Forum, in Davos. One year later, the first Wimpy Kid film is released.

2012 Kinney publishes his seventh Wimpy Kid book and has a cameo role in the third film, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, which has just come out on DVD.

Susie Mesure

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing