Cartoonist shares untainted love of childhood

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Dec 14, 2016 - 17:28
  • Updated : Dec 15, 2016 - 00:10

Exuding youthful exuberance and expectations, American cartoonist Jeff Kinney decided to make a living sketching comics while in college.

Majoring in computer science at the University of Maryland, Kinney’s inner soul was tilted toward the stuff of children, the wondrous imagination of a kid growing up in a small town in Maryland.

He started drawing comic strips for a college newspaper, and after graduation, sent submission packets to cartoon syndicates. 

Jeff Kinney, author of children’s classic “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” speaks at a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday. (Access Communications and Consulting)

“I thought I would get immediate success, but what I got instead were lots of rejection letters,” the author of the world-famous “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” children’s books told reporters at a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday.

“After about three years of trying, I realized that I didn’t have the technical skills to be a good enough illustrator. So in 1998, I started drawing like a kid, pretending as if I were a real kid. That’s when I came up with the idea of a ‘Wimpy Kid.’”

The “Wimpy Kid” series has sold more than 180 million copies worldwide and mesmerized the hearts of youngsters and adults alike. The books, so far published in 52 languages -- including a Latin version, which was given to the Pope -- were on the New York Times’ best-seller list for five consecutive years. Some installments were adapted into films by 20th Century Fox.

In 2009, Time magazine named Kinney one of the world’s most influential people.

The books tell the daily trials and struggles of Greg Heffley, a wimpy, mischievous and smart middle schooler who is often selfish, lazy and arrogant, sometimes even mean and dishonest. 

The “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney

“Greg Heffley is a lot like I was as a kid,” Kinney said, adding the character had many flaws. “What makes him funny as a character is that he’s very flawed. When kids read the book, they understand that Greg isn’t a character to emulate, but to laugh at and laugh with.”

Kinney said he originally did not intend to write for children. His goal was to write a nostalgic piece for adults, similar to “The Wonder Years,” a US coming-of-age sitcom in the 1980s and ’90s.

When Kinney’s publisher suggested making a children’s series, “I didn’t actually have to change any of the drawings and scripts, because my sensibilities are those of a child,” the cartoonist said. He is also now a producer, actor, movie director and game designer.

In 1998, Kinney started to write down every funny thing he could remember as a child on a sketchbook, and started filling it with ideas.

“After working on the sketchbook for about four years, I started on a manuscript,” he said. “While writing, I decided to put illustrations in key spots, so that there is a live interaction between the cartoons and the texts.”

Jeff Kinney, author of children’s classic “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” speaks at a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday. (Access Communications and Consulting)

Kinney’s belated artistic flowering was grounded in early training.

“When I was drawing as a child, I simplified my style,” he said, describing his line of work as “the art of simplification.” “When I draw now, I try to use as few lines as possible.”

Comic books can be an enjoyable source of storytelling and literature, the 45-year-old cartoonist said, adding they should be “funny and authentic.”

“My books aren’t filled with lessons. They don’t feel like being written by an adult down to a child. They feel like books written by a child into the world.”

Kinney’s mother was an early childhood educator at a preschool and brought home picture books. His elder sister was a voracious reader. But the biggest influence was his father, who had drawers full of comic books from the 1940s and ’50s.

“I developed my whole frame of reference in understanding the world through these comic books my father read,” the author highlighted, adding that he learned world history, geography, politics, culture, religion and psychology from them.

Jeff Kinney, author of children’s classic “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” speaks at a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday. (Joel Lee / The Korea Herald)

Kinney, who has sons aged 14 and 11, said he feels a “huge responsibility” to be an influence on his readers around the world. Noting that Korean students go through rigorous academic curriculums, he said children should find a balance between fun and study, and parents should feed their interests.

“The most important thing we can do as parents is to associate reading with pleasure,” the cartoonist stressed. “If kids feel the pleasure of having completed the book, then that is the lesson we want them to take away, that reading is both good and fun.”

Kinney now lives in the small town of Plainville, Massachusetts, with his family. He opened a bookstore that acts as a community library and cultural center, and where internationally renowned cartoonists and authors visit around the year.

“Thanks to the ‘Wimpy Kid,’ I got to travel around the world and meet interesting people, including three US Presidents,” he said. “I met President Obama and his family in the White House with my family and relatives in 2012.”

By Joel Lee (