Ten years ago, Jeff Kinney roamed the aisles of New York Comic-Con with his sketchbook in hand, hoping to find an editor who would publish the diary he had written and illustrated in the voice of a middle-school misfit named Greg Heffley. Abrams took it on – cautiously. Kinney recalls a “four-figure advance,” and a 15,000-copy first printing. “And a quarter of that [printing] was for the Junior Library Guild,” he said.
To promote the release of Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s 10th volume, Old School, Abrams has planned a world tour that will take Kinney to 15 countries in 33 days, beginning in Tokyo on November 3, and continuing on to China, Australia, and throughout Europe, where the author is expected to meet mobs of Wimpy Kid fans at every stop. (All of Kinney’s signings at his recently opened bookstore, An Unlikely Story, in his adopted hometown of Plainville, Mass., are already completely sold out.) It’s a far cry from Kinney’s first appearances for Wimpy Kid, which he said drew, on average, “half a person. Sometimes there would be one; sometimes there would be nobody.”
The release of the latest installment will bring the total number of books in print for the series to something north of 164 million copies; rights have been sold for 48 foreign-language editions.
“For a long time I’ve felt like I’m on The Truman Show,” said Kinney, (a reference to the Jim Carrey film about a man who initially does not know his life is being filmed for a reality TV show), “the latest surreal moment being seeing a photo of Pope Francis accepting the first copy of the Latin edition of [Wimpy Kid]. Sometimes I feel like life can’t get any weirder; it’s just too much. But at the same time, you don’t want it to stop.”
Kinney, who claims he’s a “painfully slow writer and illustrator,” says the publication of Old School is a big relief after an extraordinarily busy and eventful year, which included the May sale and restructuring of the Family Education Network, the online game company where he has worked since 2001; the opening of An Unlikely Story; and a plane crash next door to his house in June, which killed the pilot and two passengers, and destroyed the home of his neighbors, who escaped as the structure went up in flames.
“I had taken a break from working on the book to take my older son to see the new Jurassic Park movie when my phone started buzzing incessantly,” he said. “It was just a horrific accident and luckily my neighbors were okay but, still it was very scary, and very sad for the people on the plane.”
Despite all these distractions – Kinney moved his studio from the house to the store because of the plane crash – he managed to finish Greg Heffley’s 10th adventure, one dominated by Mrs. Heffley’s mission to get her kids and her community to “unplug and reconnect” with each other.
“It may have come from planning the bookstore, but I developed this really heightened awareness of how we are all buried in our screens, and how much things have changed even in 10 years,” Kinney said. “We are a nation with a hardcore addiction to these devices and I put myself front and center. I must check my phone 200 times a day. It’s insane.”
While Kinney jets off to promote Old School, wife Julie Kinney will be, literally, minding the store. In late May, the couple opened An Unlikely Story in Julie’s hometown, a former manufacturing hub 40 miles south of Boston. The Kinneys sank millions into building a three-story structure in the center of Plainville, a town of 8,000. It has quickly become both the center of civic life and a destination – and not just for Wimpy Kid fans. “For authors, too,” Kinney said. “We’ve had a number of authors reach out to us and ask if we’d host an event for them. It’s amazing. It’s changing this town.”
When he’s on the sales floor, Kinney encounters both young readers who know who he is, and those who want to know if Mr. Kinney is around. “Those kids, I show them the book, Who Is Jeff Kinney? (Grosset & Dunlap, 2015) and tell them it’s no good. See if I can get a rise out of them,” he said.
The bookstore building is being further improved – the third floor will add a space devoted to “all things Wimpy,” Kinney said. “We never wanted to make the first floor about Wimpy Kid. If the store depended on that or on just my books, we wouldn’t last very long. But we realize we need a bigger Wimpy Kid presence than we initially thought.”
Like the books that brought him fame, the store is already exceeding expectations. “I can’t believe how well it’s working,” Kinney said. “The appetite for a bookstore of this type, with a lot of events, has really surprised me. We’ve had to hire police officers several times to direct traffic. It makes you wonder why every town doesn’t have a bookstore in its downtown.”