Jeff Kinney’s Diary Of A Wimpy Kid was first published in 2004. The twelfth in the series is due November 2017. Kinney originally planned ten, unless the quality dropped off. At this point he plans to continue indefinitely, so long as they’re still popular.
Television tie-ins, film versions and highly illustrated diaries of the Wimpy Kid ilk are all consumed in abundance. Such books should not be despised as merely unchallenging, or even pernicious (as Enid Blyton once was by disapproving parents and teachers); welcoming, accessible work, full of deftly harnessed silliness and engaging illustration, plays a critical role in the reader’s development, teaching by stealth the power of a punchline or a single phrase or word, and makes the act of reading pleasurable in a way that data-driven literacy objectives often do not. Predictable formulae, comforting, unchallenging narrative arcs and repeated re-reading allow a child to build a solid foundation of enjoyment from which he or she can go far.
THE AUDIENCE OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID
By this point in his career, Kinney knows his audience really well.
“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.”
“You can’t really write for kids or you might write down to kids.”
ON WRITING FOR CHILDREN
I still write for adults and I write with the idea that maybe my brother or my father will read what I’m writing. Every so often, I’ll come up with a joke that isn’t as good or maybe is a little bit broad, and I’ll think, “Hey, that’s not up to my standards,” but then I’ll think, “Maybe kids will like it.” That’s when I always pull back. That’s where my line in the sand is. I figure if I keep thinking that way and start writing for kids, that the quality will erode and self-destruct. I keep my eye on that line.
Kinney started writing for adults and found that his audience was actually kids.
Similarly, Lauren Wolk wrote her critically acclaimed Wolf Hollow thinking she was writing for an adult audience. It was the publisher who realised it was for a middle grade audience, and the revisions turned it into a children’s book.
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
“I like things that kids like. I like the food that kids like unfortunately.”
“I actually feel like it’s pretty easy to get into the mind of a kid. I think what’s hard is coming up with something that’s original. It’s very easy to come up with something that’s derivative or it’s been done a million times tropes, but it’s hard to come up with a real nugget, you know, something that really that people haven’t seen before.”
For more opinions on the differences between writing for adults and children, see this post.
GENRE/CATEGORY OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID
The buddy story is actually a combination of three genres:
Blake Snyder lists three categories:
- A Boy And His Dog
The Boy and His Dog gives us a “catalyst” character who enters the hero’s life, changes him, then leaves. The movie ET is like this. And stories like Rain Man and Lethal Weapon give us a main character who changes drastically while the secondary character changes little or not at all.
But, in general, the Buddy Love plot involves two characters who start off hating each other, realise that they need each other (and work well together!), hate that even more, conflict conflict conflict, have one big final fight… and then “surrender their egos to win.”
Snyder includes in this category such gems as Wayne’s World, Thelma & Louise, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Finding Nemo. They all share the dynamic of two characters debating “important story issues.”
A Buddy Love story consists of an “incomplete hero,” who does not know what or who he is missing to make his life whole.
Raison d’être Of The Buddy Story
The buddy story results in a kind of spoof of the earnest love story, in which we learn that life is better when you are part of a couple. The buddy story aims to make the audience laugh but usually also to go ‘aww’, because the relationship between the buddies is probably quite sweet, after going through some trials.
The buddy strategy allows the writer to cut the hero into two parts, demonstrating two different approaches to life and two sets of talents. These two characters are ‘married’ in a metaphorical sense.
Characters You’ll Find In Buddy Stories
Usually you fill out the character web with at least one outside, dangerous, ongoing opponent. And because most buddy stories use a mythic journey, the buddies encounter a number of secondary opponents on the road. These characters are usually strangers to the buddies, and they are dispatched in quick succession. Each of these opponents should represent a negative aspect of the society that hates the buddies or wants to break them up.
There will be a snag in the relationship that keeps interfering. This allows an ongoing opposition between the two leads in a traveling story where most of the other opponents are strangers who quickly come and go. In any Buddy Picture Comedy, the buddy is the first opponent.
As in the love story, one of the buddies should be more central than the other. Usually it’s the thinker, the schemer, or the strategist of the two, because this character comes up with the plan and starts them off on the desire line.
Often one’s a cop, the other’s a fed, or one’s a cop the other’s a crook, or one’s a by-the-book detective and the other’s the precinct’s resident loose cannon. They have to work together to get something done (like solve a crime). Buddy cop movies are a slightly different genre mashup: Action+Love+Crime (without the comedy).
Occasionally you get a female buddy movie, like The Heat (2013)
The ‘buddy movie’ equivalent in MG literature is also pretty popular and Diary of a Wimpy Kid is the stand out example, with Greg Heffley as the main character who has a more naive and light-hearted best friend. The same combination is used in Monster House (the film). Usually, girls form the opponents, and are seen as a different species. This is supposed to result in humour, to a greater or lesser extent.
Though not really a kids’ story due to the advanced age of the narrator, The Wonder Years gives us Kevin Arnold and his best friend Paul. The comedy that results is of a melancholic kind.
Female friendships and the problems within are almost always treated in dramatic/serious fashion, though the female buddy story is becoming more popular.
Illustrated Novels For Middle Grade
Kinney’s 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. Kinney thinks there should be a lot more books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid that help transition young readers.
Publishers and author/illustrators have taken note.
There are good and bad results that occur when a book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid hits the stratosphere. On the one hand, suddenly publishers are a lot more open-minded about breathing life into books that mix text and images in new and unique ways. The door opens a little wider for unconventional titles that straddle a variety of writing genres and styles and (normally) don’t win any literary awards. That’s the good. The bad thing is that as a result any book that tries to make any headway in the market using pictures as well as text (and PARTICULARLY if it has a diary/journal format) is on some level going to be slapped with a “Diary of a Wimpy Kid Wannabe” label by the critics out there unwilling to read it closely.
— Betsy Bird, from her Goodreads review of The Popularity Papers
Big titles in this category of books include:
- Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey
- Dogman is also by Dav Pilkey and is an off-shoot of Captain Underpants in which the boy characters draw the comic
- Big Nate series by Lincoln Pierce is perhaps the most similar
- The Treehouse series from Australia
- The Terrible Two series by Jory John and Mac Barnett
- Stick Cat by Tom Watson
- Middle School: The Worst Years Of My Life, written by someone in the James Patterson franchise
- Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis
Others are aimed squarely at girls, indicated by pink and pastels on the cover.
I could be wrong, but when you have a purple book with doodled flowers and ladybugs and two female characters on a cover, boys sometimes tend to go screaming in the opposite direction. This is a shame since I think guys could get a huge kick out of this storyline. If boys read the pinkness that is Babymouse (and they do, they do) then they should read Ms. Ignatow as well.
— Betsy Bird
- Dork Diaries by Rachel Renée Russell
- Dear Dumb Diary by Jim Benton
- Amelia’s Notebook by Marissa Moss
- Ruth McNally Barshaw’s Ellie McDoodle
- The Popularity Papers by by Amy Ignatow
WHAT DOES KINNEY’S WRITING PROCESS LOOK LIKE?
Kinney spent about eight years working on Diary Of A Wimpy Kid. Once the first book took off the deadlines shortened considerably and it now takes him about nine months to create a book from start to finish.
He usually ends up dropping a major storyline. Sometimes the book is too short so he has inserted a new character. (This character was the most loved by the publisher in the end.)
January: Starts writing jokes. Types them into his phone because it’s always on him. At first they are not cohesive at all, but eventually he picks there’s a theme to them and builds a plot around that.
May: Takes all the 350 jokes and start writing the actual manuscript. That takes about a month. He knows he needs between 350 and 400 image ideas. Then he can ‘whittle it down’.
June/July: Because he still has a day job, Kinney does all the illustrations in two months of 14 to 17-hour days.
ILLUSTRATING DIARY OF A WIMPY KID
I couldn’t draw like a professional cartoonist and I knew it and I couldn’t do anything about it.
So eventually I found — it was sort of like a Peter Principle sort of thing where I said well, if I draw like a seventh grader then, you know, I’m going to act like I’m doing that on purpose. So that’s where the idea for Greg Heffley in Diary of a Wimpy Kid came from.
For anyone drawing in this style, they need to walk a fine line between “believably childlike” and “unbelievably good”. One way other illustrators have achieved this is by using childhood writing implements such as crayons (see The Popularity Papers), collage (Charlie and Lola) or dye (Eric Carle).
After coming up with the jokes Kinney classifies them e.g. a single image joke, a four image joke.
He actually starts drawing very late in the game.
Each drawing – 320 is the ideal figure he’s arrived at per book – takes an hour to do.
Kinney uses Adobe Flash for drawing software and a massive Wacom tablet. He does a rough sketch then goes over the top more slowly and carefully. Each illustration takes an hour to do It takes about 350 to 400 hours to do the illustrations for one of the Wimpy Kid books.
“Humour is such a subjective thing that I’m constantly polling people to see what works and what doesn’t.”
“I turn in probably about eight drafts of my book. It’s pretty labor-intensive and And I often hand out my first draft to about four or five people from different walks of life because people respond to different things. And I try to find where there’s consensus. So that’s a big part of the process.”
Kinney has always used his boys as beta readers, though when he first started the younger boy was a bit too young yet.
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. 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,
JEFF KINNEY’S INFLUENCES
- Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooe by Carl Banks
- Judy Blume (but not the ones about gross periods)
- Beverly Cleary
- JRR Tolkien
Kinney is also a big fan of World of Warcraft, which influenced the interactive storytelling he does in his day job.
STORYWORLD OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID
Diary of a Wimpy Kid opens with Greg just about to start middle school. Also known as junior high, it’s a two-year bridge from elementary school and high school in the US education system, where 11- to 13-year-olds are stranded in a kind of no-man’s land between childhood and adolescence. It seemed to Kinney to be a perfect setting. ‘Our junior high was separate, you had to drive quite a way to get to it, and it always felt to me like we were being segregated from the general population. It’s as if society kind of hides you in middle school while you’re in this larval state.’
Jeff Kinney himself lives in Plainville, Massachussets, New England. His family has the financial means to live somewhere more glamorous and expensive but chooses to stay in an ‘ordinary’ American town, partly because he likes it there, partly because moving to somewhere like Beverly Hills or Paris would change the nature of his stories. This indicates that Plainville itself is no doubt an influence on the setting of Wimpy Kid.
The film adaptations are filmed in Vancouver, Canada.
STORY STRUCTURE OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID
I have heard Jeff Kinney’s work described as ‘plotless’.
The humour is gentle, the plot negligible
This view is echoed by the author himself:
With my Wimpy Kid books ironically I don’t care that much about story. I see my books as joke delivery mechanisms.
But if I’ve learnt one thing over the course of writing this storytelling blog it’s this: Every well-known, widely-loved story follows classic story structure, whether the author realises it or simply intuits it. Even people like David Lynch, who insist they don’t follow any story structure, end up following it despite themselves.
Jeff Kinney’s novels really are more like a book of cartoons when it comes to story structure. Like, say, Calvin and Hobbes, the books comprise a series of interlinked vignettes. Each vignette has a fully formed story structure in its own right.
See: How To Structure Any Story (or vignette)
ABSENCE OF CHARACTER ARC IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID
One thing absent in all sit-coms and comedy series is the character arc. The plot is not character based but action driven. If Greg Heffley were to grow up we wouldn’t have anymore books.
“Greg is in this state of, you know, pre-adolescent amber in a way. He’ll never grow up. He’s going to be frozen in this state for the rest of his life so you’ll never see much character development there.”
“What I came to appreciate is that Greg’s DNA is in comics. And the best cartoon characters never grow up. Charlie Brown has a first day of school every year. So in The Ugly Truth, which is about puberty, Greg can see all of his peers growing up and he’s so ready to cross the threshold, but he can’t and he doesn’t know why. Because he’s a cartoon character, he’ll be in a state of arrested development for ever.”
— Jeff Kinney
SUPPORTING CHARACTERS IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID
As for Susan Heffley, ‘I think of her as being an everymom. I get ideas from all around me, and then I just hang them on the archetypes that exist in my books. But a lot of the inspiration for that character comes from my wife. For example, on my son’s sixth birthday party, she wrote on the invitation that everybody should bring a book. She didn’t want a lot of junk in the house, so my poor kid got a ton of books on his birthday.’
“When fathers appear in children’s picture books, they’re angling for laughs, taking their sons on adventures or modeling physical strength or stoic independence. There is the rare exception in children’s books where a father baldly demonstrates — without symbolic gestures — his love for his son (a few are “Guess How Much I Love You” and “Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!”). Just as women’s studies classes have long examined the ways that gendered language undermines women and girls, a growing body of research shows that stereotypical messages are similarly damaging to boys.”
“If you’ve ever lived with a teenager, you know what it’s like to have Rodrick in your house, and if you have a younger sibling then you know what it’s like to have Manny. But what I’ve done is take all of the crummy things that I did as a kid, and that even my younger brother did as a kid, and I’ll hang all of those things on Rodrick.”
“Gathering jokes is the hardest part of the process, and he finds himself leading an odd double life, empathising with Greg about the unfairness of adults – while laying down similar boundaries with his own boys. ‘In my books, for example, Greg picks the Scout troop that does the least community service, and in my real life I’m the Scout master who is always trying to get them to do community service projects.”
Markedly absent from the Wimpy Kid books: Dialogue. There are few speech bubbles in the illustrations and because this is a summary of a boy’s day, he does not render people’s dialogue. Instead, he writes two matter-of-fact, understated sentences then draws a picture. Two sentences, a picture. That’s the general pattern. Naturally, being a diary, the stories are written in first person.
UNRELIABLE NARRATION IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID
“When you read my books, you have to suspend your disbelief a little bit because Greg sometimes has a big adventure during the day and he goes to bed at 3 in the morning and yet he’s still writing his journal entry from that day. I think that with this series you have to understand that Greg is sort of an unreliable narrator in a way. Oftentimes what he’s writing will contradict what you see in the pictures. That’s a lot of fun I have with that is to show conflicting points of view and to show that Greg isn’t always on top of things.”
“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. “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.”
What has made them so popular is how acutely he observes tweenage life. From the finely differentiated grades of coolness to the politics of school lavatories, he describes a world that is nostalgically familiar to most adults, and Greg handles it all so ineptly – while remaining blissfully oblivious to his own failings – that younger readers can enjoy laughing at him, safe in the knowledge that they are coping slightly better.
HUMOUR IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID
“[As a kid] I liked the humour [in Judy Blume’s Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing] which was realistic and not outlandish.”
When Kinney started writing for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, he spent about four years trying to remember what it was like to be a kid, recalling as much detail as possible from his childhood. He was trying to remember what it was like to be a child.
“I don’t have fond memories of middle school, but I think bad memories can make for good comedy.”
Therefore, much of the humour comes from Greg’s perspective. Kinney makes an effort to get inside his head and imagine how he would interpret a situation.
“I’m trying to get as many laughs as I can per page. And if I can figure out a way to get a good story out of it or something credible, then I’m very satisfied, but really I’m trying to keep the kid laughing and oftentimes if I have a lot of plot, it gets in the way of the jokes and it burns through too many pages. So I will sacrifice a good story for a good joke anytime.”
— Jeff Kinney
Kinney is aiming for two jokes per page.
The writers of The Simpsons are also very mathematical about the joke calculation of every episode. People have made graphs on that. The Crepes Of Wrath episode from season one of The Simpsons was 23 minutes long and contained 47 verbal jokes, 36 visual gags and 7 cultural references. It also contained 6 ‘callbacks‘. A callback refers to a joke that refers to a previous episode. It’s a reward for regular viewers and treated as a bit of an Easter egg. Seinfeld was one of the first shows to make heavy use of callbacks.
ABSENCE OF MORALS IN DIARY OF A WIMPY KID
People ask me all the time if there’s a moral or a lesson to my books and I would say that I don’t feel that that’s my job is to moralise to kids or bake in some sort of a lesson into my books. You know, I’m really trying to entertain kids with those books. And I figure that if there is a lesson, it’s that reading can be fun because adults read for fun and for entertainment and why shouldn’t kids? There’s no better lesson than that. I think that if you open a book and it feels welcoming and it doesn’t feel like work, that a kid can really feel comfortable with that and then move on to bigger and better things as they usually do.
I actually feel conflicted about the world of literature as handed down from adults to kids because I think that it’s very important that kids have a filter that somebody can tell kids what quality reading is. And, you know, my books are candy and they don’t have a lot of vitamins. I think that kids need their vitamins too, but I think that sometimes adults miss the mark. They hand kids books that maybe they were forced to read as kids. Forced is maybe too strong of a word but, you know, books they were asked politely by their teachers to read that really have no — they have no relevance to the kid’s life.
Some people criticise him for being a bad influence on kids and I don’t really understand that because I think that Greg is an average kid or at least he’s like I was as a kid, which is not fully formed, not always making the right decisions, but thinking of yourself because you can’t yet see outside of yourself. You know, a kid in middle school doesn’t have such a great awareness of the world around them.
Absence of morals doesn’t equal absence of ideology.