'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' Author Jeff Kinney: EW's Celebrity Dad Chat
With the third movie from his bestselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series hitting theaters this weekend, author Jeff Kinney talked to us about his sons’ reading habits, the movie process, and why certain kinds of gaming is okay in his house.–As told to Abby West
ON GETTING HIS OWN CHILDREN TO BECOME READERS
When my books first came out I started getting emails from parents and teachers from all over the country who said, “This is the first book that my reluctant reader has ever read.” I was unfamiliar with the term “reluctant reader.” I’ve since come to realize that it’s a phenomenon. And I got so many of those letters that I thought that my boys [Will and Grant] were going to be reluctant readers as well.
And then my older son [9-year-old Will] really surprised me. He read a few Captain Underpants book and picked through mine. Then the next thing you knew, he was reading Harry Potter, and he’d read the whole series within a month and a half at the end of second grade. Then he moved on to the Rick Riordan Percy Jackson series and read the whole series in week, I think. So he sort of leapfrogged over my books or books that appeal to reluctant readers for these giant novels. My other son [7-year-old Grant] is just starting to really read but I expect this year will be a big one for him.
If one of my sons turned out to be a reluctant reader, I’d feel like they were falling behind their classmates. You can’t force somebody to like to do something. I’ve heard many tales of parents who bribe their kids or paid them off in stickers or something to read 15 minutes a night. So if both of my sons end up becoming readers on their own, I’d feel very lucky. I’d feel like I dodged a bullet.
ON HIS OWN BOOKS
My wife read my books to my older son. I believe there was only one he read on his own, and I believe it was the last one. It was funny walking through the room and hearing my wife filter the things she thought were inappropriate for him to hear.
I wrote these books with adults in mind and my publisher told me I had, in fact, written a children’s series. So I’ve always felt this angst over the difference between my target audience and my actual audience. So I’m always checking myself and trying to make sure that what I’m writing is appropriate for kids who are reading them. And what makes it doubly difficult is that I’m writing about a middle schooler whose issues are somewhat different than the actual readers, who are in first to fifth grades.
On top of that, I like for my humor to be slightly subversive but not too edgy. I like to keep things G-rated. But there’s been just a touch of a backlash from parents because sometimes the kids who are reading my books aren’t quite ready for them. You have to have an understanding of irony and that the main character is flawed. So if a kid is reading the books at face value and trusting Greg as a narrator, I can see that being a problem.
ON WHY GAMING AND READING AREN’T DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSED TO ONE ANOTHER
I created a website called Poptropica for kids, and one way to look at it is as a videogame. But Poptropica is made up of interactive quests, and I think that kids engage with their stories through videogames now more than they ever have. I think the quality and writing for videogames has really become an art form. So I don’t see time spent on that as wasted time. I think it teaches kids critical thinking, and hopefully we’re telling great stories.
At the same time, I think that many console videogames have gotten much too violent and that some of the best writing is in some of the most violent videogames. So I don’t think that we’ll let our kids play any rated-M games while they live in our house. But we do have a WII. I like the games on the Wii. They’re a lot of fun. That seems to be up our alley as parents.
All that said, we have screentime limits in the family. Reading seems to be the best option for kids in terms of enrichment. We try not to let them sit in front of a screen for too many hours of the day.
ON THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKING ON THE MOVIE
It’s been a really edifying experience for me to be a part of the movie-making process. With the books, I control almost everything. But in film it’s a completely collaborative effort. I had to learn to be part of a much bigger team. I learned a lot and I feel like my life’s been enriched by that experience. This will be the first summer in four that I haven’t been in Vancouver making one of the Wimpy Kids movies. I’m in shock with the free time. But I’m going to have to spend it all drawing/illustrating my next book [the seventh Wimpy Kid book]. I’m just a little bit behind on my deadline.