In schoolyards, jocks may still rule. But in bookstores, the big boy on campus is a wimp. More specifically, he’s a middle-schooler named Greg Heffley, the star of Jeff Kinney’s bestselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.
Next Monday, October 12, Harry N. Abrams’ Amulet Books imprint is releasing four million copies of Dog Days, the fourth installment of the cartoon-illustrated novels—the largest first printing for any children’s book this year. “It’s been and remains an extraordinary thing for the company, and we hope for kids,” said Abrams publisher Michael Jacobs. Since April 2007, when the series debuted, the publisher has produced a combined 21 million copies of Kinney’s other titles: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Rodrick Rules and The Last Straw, along with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself Book Journal.
Abrams has kept the latest book so secret that not even the buyers for Borders and Barnes & Noble have read it. In asking Kinney to provide any clues to the plot of Dog Days, the first to feature Greg Heffley in the summer, outside of school, Kinney offers only, “Greg gets a pet.”
Adding to the buzz, next April 20th Century Fox will release a full-length movie version of the first book (starring 11-year-old Zachary Gordon of TV’s How I Met Your Mother). Kinney has been on set for about half of the shoot in Vancouver, which began on August 12 and wraps up next week. Though he didn’t write the screenplay, he approves of how filmmakers can bring to life a scene like Book 1’s “Wizard of Oz” school play, with Greg Heffley unhappily portraying a tree while 150 parents and kids watch from the audience. “I can’t convey that [150 people] very well in line drawings,” he said. If the first movie succeeds at the box office, Fox and Kinney plan to turn more of the books into films.
Until then, kids will need to learn what happens to Greg Heffley the old-fashioned way, by turning the pages. Librarians and booksellers report that even the most “reluctant readers” are likely to do just that. “It’s going to be one of the biggest books of the fall,” said Borders children’s buyer Susan Aikens, who took a chance on the first book in 2007, when Kinney was a first-time author and Abrams was not particularly known as a kids’ publisher. Before ordering that book, Aikens read it at home. “I laughed so hard, my husband thought I was choking,” she said. (She can’t wait for the movie, too; “I so wanted to be cast as Mrs. Heffley, the utterly clueless but well-intentioned mother.”)
Barnes & Noble children’s buyer Brian Monahan is also a big fan of the series. “It’s unique. It’s innovative. It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “We’re thrilled to have this book coming out before Christmas. We anticipate this will be one of our top sellers for the whole year.” B&N will feature a banner for the book in the windows of all its 774 stores. And like many other bookstores nationwide, the chain will use some activities in Abrams’s event kit ( which is available online), as well as temporary tattoos (50 per store) a T-shirt giveaway and a “trivia challenge” written by Kinney himself. (Abrams sent out more than 2,000 party kits to booksellers.)
Dog Days is the largest single new title buy for the holiday season at wholesaler Bookazine, according to children’s merchandise manager Heather Doss, who has just placed a reorder for the first three books. “A child who has not read the series yet can buy all of them,” she said. But only in hardback: Abrams currently has no plans for paperback editions.
A rendering of the Wimpy Kid tour bus that will
take Kinney to seven cities to promote Dog Days.
Borders is perhaps the biggest Wimpy Kid booster. At 4 p.m. on Columbus Day, Borders and Waldenbooks stores nationwide will hold in-store Wimpy Kid parties in all of its stores. The chain is also exclusively selling Wimpy Kid T-shirts with an image of Greg with a word bubble that kids can decorate using a washable marker that comes with the shirt (the ink washes off so that kids can redecorate the shirt after each wearing). The price: $9.99 alone or $5.99 with the purchase of Dog Days.
On release day, Kinney will begin his book tour with a seated, ticketed Borders event at the Rhode Island Convention Center. And from October 12—16, Borders will give away 20 signed copies of the new book through a Twitter contest. Each day Borders will “tweet” clues to four store locations. The first person to go to that location and say “cheese touch” to a cashier will get a signed book. (As every self-respecting Wimpy Kid fan knows, the “cheese touch” is a form of cooties at Greg’s school.)
Many independent booksellers are also hosting events. Little Bookworms Children’s Bookstore in Bradenton, Fla., is holding an after-school release party with a Waldo-like scavenger hunt for pictures of Greg, placed in nearby storefront windows. And a local illustrator will give kids advice on how to draw their own strips. Co-owner Heidi Allwood ordered 150 books since the series is so popular with her young customers. “They can relate to the character so easily,” she said. “For that age group, specifically boys in that age group, a book should be fun to read.”
Abrams is offering a downloadable Dog Days event kit for booksellers with suggested activities and games.
Vicky Uminowicz, manager of Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich, Mass., where there’s no school on Columbus Day, is opening at 7 a.m. (three hours earlier than usual) with a breakfast party. “We’re enthusiastically behind these books,” she said. “We even had a parent come back to the store with tears of joy because her son finally found a book he loved.” Some kids even fork over their own cash. “The kids come into the store with their own money, wadded up in their hands,” said Elizabeth Merritt, Titcomb’s buyer.
Meanwhile, Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif., is giving out “hall passes” to kids who preorder the new title, to make sure they get priority signing when Kinney visits the store on October 20. Vivian Leal, programs and events director for Kepler’s, praises Kinney’s sense of humor about middle school, which, she said, “can be a disheartening experience.”
Even before its release, Dog Days is producing happy days at bookstores. On a single day this week, Butterfly Books in DePere, Wis., sold 10 copies of the first book. The store has ordered 30 more copies of the original titles and 50 copies of the new one.
Librarians are also stocking up. In Glencoe, Ill., a community of just 8,000, Melissa Henderson, head of children’s services for the Glencoe Public Library, shelves six copies and a CD of books one and two, five copies of book three and has ordered multiple copies of book four. “It appeals to everyone, boys and girls. Kids like those irreverent characters,” she said. “As a librarian, I think it’s a great book. As a reader of children’s literature, it’s not my favorite.” Some parents don’t like “rude” characters like Greg Heffley and, referring to another series, Junie B. Jones, she said. “He [Greg] is so self-centered.”
But those imperfections have great appeal for boys. “It’s just a funny story but very easy to read. It’s not really hard like a big Harry Potter book or something like that,” said Nicholas Barrion, 10, who preordered the new book from Little Bookworms. “I’m not really the reader type, but that’s the kind of book I will sit down and read. It’s not like some kid that has a wand, and he’s making all these spells. It’s realistic. I could see things like that happening to me and my friends.” Barrion said he’d been nervous, because of the title of The Last Straw, that Kinney would end the series after book three. “I thought, ‘Oh, man,’ ” he said.
He and his friends can rest easy: the series is not over yet. “I’m definitely going to do five, and then I’m going to see how much is left in the tank,” Kinney said. He has already written “about 13 percent” of book five, which Abrams plans to release next fall.
Will Greg Heffley remain a fifth grader for life? “That’s at the heart of whether I’m going to keep writing,” said Kinney, who, along with his editor, Charles Kochman, seems to be leaning toward keeping the hapless hero in middle school. “Greg is more like a cartoon character than a literary character.” And cartoon characters typically don’t age—think about Peanuts, Kochman said. “He’s stuck in that cycle, reliving our worst nightmare.”
Originally Kinney published Greg Heffley’s exploits on the educational-game site Funbrain.com, and he based his first three titles on material from those entries, said Kochman. “This book is the first all-new book.” Today Kinney lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Julie, and sons Will, 6, and Grant, 4. He does not formally base his books on his own life or on his children’s. The Wimpy Kid books do include a few personal nuggets, however. “There are touchstones from my childhood,” he said. For example, Kinney was on his school’s swimming and soccer teams. But he never received a skimpy hand-me-down swimsuit, as Greg does in Rodrick Rules.
Kinney also gets a few ideas from his sons. His wife (a stay-at-home mom who was a newspaper writer and a PR person for a hospital) recently asked one of their sons to go on a bike ride. No dice. “He announced he is an ‘indoor person,’ ” said Kinney. “Yes, it will be in book four.”
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days. Jeff Kinney. Abrams/Amulet, Oct. 12, $13.95 ISBN 978-0-8109-8391-5