With more than 250 million copies of his Diary of a Wimpy Kid series in print in some 65 languages, 800 weeks straight on the New York Times bestseller list, and a few popular major motion picture adaptations, you might think things couldn’t get much better for author-illustrator Jeff Kinney. But with publication this week of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Big Shot the 16th book in his series, and with a long-awaited Disney+ animated movie set to debut on December 3, Kinney and his fans clearly still have much to look forward to.
“I feel like I'm in a constant state of reflection, but this year in particular does feel really different because of the Disney+ production,” Kinney told PW. “I feel like we're at peak ‘Wimpy Kid’ right now, and it does feel like a kind of a rebirth or a restart in a really good way.”
In Big Shot, Kinney mines an especially rich source of humorous childhood memories: team sports. The story begins after a disastrous field day competition at school leads Greg Heffley to decide he’s pretty much done with sports. But against all odds, Greg makes the basketball team. And of course, with everything on the line the ball finds its way into his hands.
Kinney said that the story draws on a few, well, autobiographical details. “There’s one little joke from the book, when Greg is riding the bench in soccer in kindergarten, and his mom says, ‘You know, the reason the coach isn't playing you is because you're his secret weapon, because he's saving you for a big moment.’ So Greg is just waiting for that big moment,” Kinney says, with a chuckle. “Well, there are a lot of these little moments of degradation in youth sports that people don't talk about out loud. And of course parents always try to sugarcoat things to make their kids feel better. So I wanted to kind of shine a light on that and give kids a language to talk about these things, and to be able to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.”
To promote Big Shot, Kinney is once again heading out on a socially distanced "drive-thru" tour—his fourth since the pandemic hit in 2020.
“For my first one, I was promoting Rowley Jefferson's Awesome Friendly Adventure and I really wanted to do something live, in person, no matter what that looked like, or how few people showed up, because I really wanted to give kids an opportunity to do something that wasn't on a screen,” Kinney said. “At that point in the pandemic kids were on screens like 24 hours a day. So I went out there with a van and I had this grabber and I'd hand kids their books and we'd take pictures. We kept our distance. We kept masks on. And it was cool. It was weird. But it was really cool.”
The socially distanced tours have evolved since then, Kinney noted—for his Deep End tour there were lifeguards and music, for example, and for the Rowley Jefferson's Awesome Friendly Spooky Stories tour, there was a sort of drive-through haunted house. And for Big Shot, the event will evolve once again. “The Big Shot tour will be almost like an outdoor field day, a parking lot field day, in a way,” Kinney said.
Meanwhile, Kinney and his staff are also busy gearing up for the December 3 debut of the highly anticipated Disney+ original animated movie version of Diary of Wimpy Kid, written and produced by Kinney, and directed by Swinton Scott. The movie is based on the story of the first book.
“This has been a really long time coming, about seven years, maybe more,” Kinney told PW about the animated movie. “It started off with the idea of creating a Christmas special for Fox. And we really enjoyed working together on the script, but what happened was the media landscape just changed so quickly. We started off thinking this was a network television special, and then the whole streaming industry sprouted up. And then Disney bought Fox, so we were thinking that maybe this would turn into a series. But in the end Disney wanted to make a streaming movie and it has really been a great experience—and hopefully we'll get to make more in the future."
No doubt kids around the world are excited to have the new book, and are eager for the Disney+ movie. But so too, no doubt, are their parents, who Kinney said often tell him how they've laughed with their kids over Greg Heffley’s adventures.
“That's always my favorite story to hear—when I hear parents talk about how they bonded with their kids over the stories,” Kinney said. “I love it that a kid can say, ‘Hey, look at this thing that happened to Greg Heffley,’ and a parent can say, ‘Well, something like that happened to me when I was a kid.’ I think those kind of moments connect us in a really special, intimate way.”
It’s also not lost on Kinney how special it is that Greg Heffley holds such universal appeal—especially in this age of screens and technology, where the childhoods of today can seem so vastly different than the childhoods of previous generations. Just don't ask Kinney to explain how he's pulled that off.
“Yeah, I think I got lucky,” he said. “Greg doesn't even have a cell phone, right? And this took me a long time to understand. It wasn't actually until I got out into the world with the series that I understood that the reason the books work is because there is this universality to childhood—that kids, wherever they are, China, Brazil, New Zealand, all grow up with so many of the same issues in their lives. They all have parents and bullies and teachers and homework and secret crushes and all of these things. So it's been really instructive, because the books are showing me that there really is this shared experience that ties us together as human beings.”
Whatever it is, Wimpy Kids fans of all ages have a new book and now a new animated movie to enjoy. And there's surely more to come. Kinney said he's still having a blast bringing Greg Heffley's world to life.
"You know, right now, just now in fact, I'm working on a screenplay. And I have to say I'm having so much fun writing it," Kinney said. "And through Disney, the books are about to be introduced to a whole new generation of readers around the world. It's been really exciting imagining all these new scenarios for Greg and Rowley. And it's also such a privilege. I always think about what a great spot I'm in—and how lucky I am to be in it."