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We've chosen some popular books for our monthly Backseat Book Club selections, but nothing quite like the boffo best-sellers in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.
How popular are these books? Consider the numbers: There are six books, and a seventh is on the way. They've been translated into 40 languages and there are 75 million copies in print worldwide. And it was our 2009 interview with author Jeff Kinney that originally inspired us to start a book club just for kids.
In the publishing world, Kinney is a rock star, and when the students at Murch elementary in Washington, D.C., got to meet him up close, the screaming almost matched Shea Stadium during a Beatles concert.
The wimpy kid of the title is Greg Heffley, who works hard to fit in and be cool at his middle school. With jeans, tennis shoes and a broad, toothy smile, author Jeff Kinney looks a bit like a big kid himself, and he told the students he felt a lot like his hero when he was younger.
"I think I felt a lot like Greg Heffley as a kid. You know, I did a lot of the same sorts of things that Greg did and I wasn't always the best kid. I was average but I wasn't always the best. I did some things I'm not so proud of." Luckily for Kinney, those mishaps paved the way for a publishing gold mine.
The books are small and simple, filled with hangman-style drawings and text that looks as though it's been scribbled by hand with pencil. In fact, Diary of a Wimpy Kid actually looks like some kid's diary, and that's a big part of the appeal.
Kids also love the stinky, gross-out humor — like the time that Greg is forced to go to a neighbor's party. His mom tells him he has to be nice and try the deviled eggs — and yuck! He hates them. So he slips the half-eaten deviled egg into his neighbor's potted plant, where it stays for weeks, creating a real stinker of a problem for the neighbors.
"They moved away because they couldn't get rid of the smell in their house, right, so they eventually moved, but what they didn't know is that they took the plant with them where the rotten eggs were," Kinney tells the kids.
That sort of thing might not be so funny to parents, but it's high comedy for the preteen set. Kids don't just laugh at Greg's antics: Teachers and librarians say the Wimpy Kid books are a big hit because the kids also get to laugh at the absurdities and indignities of middle school life. Because let's face it, no one really wants to be 13 again.
Kinney says he never intended to write kid's books. He was an aspiring cartoonist whose work was always rejected because it looked too childish. "I just could not draw like a professional cartoonist," he says. "I was like, 'I draw like a middle-schooler, right?' And eventually this idea came to me ... maybe if I act like I'm doing it on purpose, everybody will think that I was doing it on purpose, and they won't be able to reject me ... that's where the idea of Diary of a Wimpy Kid came from."
Talk about failing up — Kinney's books are read around the world, from Japan to Israel to Germany, though in Germany they have a slightly different title: Greg's Journal: I'm Surrounded by Idiots. "I said, 'Why can't we just call it Diary of a Wimpy Kid like we call it in the U.S.?' And they said, 'Well, that's because there is no word for 'wimp' in Germany.' So I thought that that was pretty funny," he says.
Kinney says he tries hard to stay grounded, despite the international success, the best-seller list, the two movies (with more of both on the way), the books about the making of the movies, plus the pajamas and lunchboxes and all that swag.
As sweet as it is, success can also be a trap. We wondered if Kinney still has the freedom to experiment and take risks, when his publishers are counting on constant home runs?
"I think that what what happens with a creative property, whether it be a comic strip or a book series or a television sitcom, is that the stakes keep getting higher, and I think eventually that gets out of control," Kinney says. "What I try to do is I actively try to repeat myself, in a way — it's because I don't want you to be able to detect a difference between the first book and the latest."
Happy summer to all our Backseat Book Club readers! Read early and often, and don't forget to send us your suggestions for the fall.