On Friday, August 3rd, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days opens in theaters. This is the 3rd movie based on Jeff Kinney’s incredibly popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid children’s book series. However, you may not have known that Kinney is also the brainchild of the online video game site Poptropica.com – listed by Time Magazine as one of the 50 best websites in 2011. Furthermore, Time Magazine named Jeff as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2009. Below I talk with the unassuming author about his new film, his surprise at the success of the Wimpy Kid books, Poptropica, and what it was like to be named to the Time 100 list.
Click on the “play” button below to listen to the full interview
A Cartoon Trojan Horse
Kinney never expected “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” to become popular – in fact, he never expected it to be published at all. He originally wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist, but after rejection after rejection he compiled all those ideas into a book. “I wanted to break into the funny pages,” Jeff explained, “and nobody liked my work so I decided to try to sneak my cartoons into books as a sort of Trojan Horse.” Regarding the enormous success of the books, Kinney added.
I’ve been shocked by every twist and turn along the way since publication. I feel like I’m living on The Truman Show with all these things happening to me.
Today there are over 75 million copies of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books in print, translated into 37 different languages – some of which Kinney didn’t even know existed, such as Catalan (I had to look it up).
Jeff believes his books resonate so well with children because they are ordinary – kids can relate to the stories. There are no dragons, or wizards, or vampires, just normal everyday slices of life, and people can see themselves in the characters. Speaking of which, I asked Jeff how much of himself was in the “Wimpy Kid” title character Greg Heffley? He replied,
My middle school experience serves as my frame of reference for all of the books. And I think that I’m similar to Greg in ways. I wasn’t a kid who was special in any particular way, so I was a lot like Greg in my flaws.
The authors that entertained Kinney as a child were Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, but it was J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit that most inspired him. Regarding Tolkein’s book, “that’s my favorite in storytelling,” he said. Similar to the English children’s literature authors the London Summer Olympics featured in the opening ceremonies with J.K. Rowling reading, Mary Poppins fighting Voldemort, and other prominent kids lit characters all appearing. With all the excitement over book series such as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, as well as “Wimpy Kid,” Kinney discussed the renaissance of children’s literature,
I keep hearing that most book stores their children’s section is their most profitable section. So that’s really exciting to me being a children’s author now. So I guess that is sort of a renaissance in a way.
As Influential as Obama and Oprah
Of course one of the things competing for kids’ time and attention away from reading and playing outside is video games, and Jeff Kinney is no stranger to the video game world. He is the creator of the giant, online, virtual world called Poptropica where kids engage in interactive quests and stories. I asked if there was a conflict at all between the video games vs. books. Jeff explained,
It’s a lot of fun for me to write in the video game realm because we explore every different type of genre that you can imagine and it’s very liberating. I think generally speaking storytelling in video games has become much better and it’s a real threat to books in terms of just telling a kid a tale. There are huge budgets for video games that rival motion pictures in some cases. I think, in the interactive world, storytelling has become much more rich and engaging.
Due to his books and the creation of the popular online video games, in 2009, Time Magazine selected Jeff Kinney as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World – i.e., the Time 100. A list that also included President Barack Obama (in his first year of office), George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, and the creators of Twitter just to name a few. Jeff said he was more than surprised, he was shocked to be included on the list – especially since he had only published three of the “Wimpy Kid” books at the time. “I thought it was all for sure a practical joke,” Kinney said, “I’m the anchorman of that class.” Listen to the audio of the interview (above) for more of Jeff’s impressions on being selected to the Time 100, how he found out, and the reception held for the honorees.
The Dog Days of Summer
Poptropica is about exploring islands, and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” film is set during summer vacation. Jeff reflected on one of his most memorable family vacations to Walt Disney World.
I remember when we were kids one year we went down to Disney World from our home in the Washington DC area, and we took a train. It was really an exciting time because it was an overnight train, and our family didn’t have a ton of money so it was a real privilege to get to go to Disney World and get to have that experience. I wish every kid could get to do that at least once because it was really a magical experience for us.
In the film, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days,” Greg Heffley and his father have two different agendas for summer vacation. Greg wants to stay inside with the shades drawn and play the video games all day, and his father wants him to have a more active lifestyle and spend a lot of time outdoors. Kinney said, as a father, these two agendas play out in real life with his family too,
We try to balance screen time versus outdoor time, but it is hard especially in the dog days of summer to get your kids to go outside when they just want to stay where it’s cool and play the Wii.
The best thing you could do is to set your kids outside and have them use their imagination and create scenarios that entertain them with very few props. Because I think the more you program your kids, the less imagination they use.
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” is rated PG, and out in theaters on Friday, August 3rd. I want to thank Jeff Kinney for taking the time to chat with us, and I look forward to seeing the film with my family.