Jeff Kinney's latest entry in his phenomenally popular series about the struggles of middle school student Greg Heffley contains lots of fill-in-the-blank pages -- appropriate since Diary of a Wimpy Kid itself came into the world as filler when Kinney, an online game designer, was managing www.funbrain.com.
"We needed a way to get kids to come back over the summer, and I had written this comic sort of as a nostalgic piece for adults, along the lines of The Wonder Years or A Christmas Story,'' said Kinney, 37, who will be autographing copies of Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do-it-Yourself Book on Saturday at the Miami Book Fair International. "I thought, with a few tweaks, it might work for kids.''
Talk about underselling an idea: Since posting the first comic in 2004, the online Wimpy Kid comic has had 65 million unique visitors. Since its conversion into bound volumes, book sales haven't been so bad either: In 2008 alone, 6.4 million copies of the three Wimpy Kid titles have sold. They've been translated into 25 languages.
"It just shocks me to this day,'' said Kinney, who grew up in Maryland but has called southern Massachusetts home for the past 13 years. "I worried that having the word 'wimpy' in the title might be the kiss of death because what kid wants to admit that they're wimpy? But it turns out, for fourth- or fifth-graders, every one of them knows what it's like to feel small. They're at the bottom of the heap.''
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Kinney did not set out to write books. He majored in criminal justice at the University of Maryland, although as an undergraduate there were clear signs of his true calling. "I was on the verge of flunking out because I was focusing all my attention on my daily comic strip for the student newspaper.''
Still, he persisted, working four years at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms until the ATF's 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, caused major upheaval, including a freeze on promotions. Kinney switched gears, using his computer skills to land a job designing multiplayer online games.
Though fans have made a bestseller of the do-it-yourself version, which allows readers to collect the type of information they could use to write their own cartoon memoirs, many are hungry for a more about Greg. Good news: The third installment, The Last Straw, is scheduled for publication in January. But don't worry … "last'' does not mean "final.''
"My publisher wasn't too happy with the title,'' he admits. "I think there will actually be five volumes, unless there are seven.''