Words to Live By features exclusive interviews with authors, artists, and community members.
November 1, 2021
By Benay Hicks
Jeff Kinney, prolific author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, joined me and Ginger Young by phone as he drove a massive Diary of a Wimpy Kid van to South Carolina. To promote the latest Wimpy Kid book (Big Shot), Jeff and his team are taking a drive-through book tour around the country. Prior to the call, Ginger and I — along with Book Harvest board member, Taquoia, and her daughter Jade — were able to attend the tour as they stopped in Chapel Hill at Flyleaf Books on October 28. We were thrilled by the event!
Please enjoy Words to Live By with Jeff Kinney.
Jeff Kinney is the author of one of Book Harvest’s most celebrated books: Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Jeff started brainstorming ideas for his famous book-turned-series in 1998, and published it online six years later. The online version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid now has more than 80 million visits and is read by more than 70,000 kids per day. The series has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 500 weeks. It also won two Children’s Choice Book Awards and six Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. In 2009, Jeff was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people in the world. He currently lives with his family in Massachusetts, where they own a bookstore called An Unlikely Story.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I have to say, embarrassingly enough, that I was a bathroom reader. There were always comic books or high-interest laying around. And when you have four kids sharing the same bathroom, you tend to inherit what the kid before you read. My sister read the Judy Blume catalogue, so I tore through her books when I was a 4th-5th grader. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing was a book I really liked as a kid. Freckle Juice. Judy Blume sort of lost me at Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I think I was a little out of my element on that one.
I read those books and eventually I discovered my own books. I gravitated towards fantasy. Towards J.R.R. Tolkien. There is a writer named Piers Anthony, who wrote the Xanth series. That was fantasy but it was also humorous, and that hit the sweet spot for me. Then, of course, I read lots of comics. I loved Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge; comics from the 1950s/60s. And I also liked newspaper comic collections like The Far Side [by Gary Larson] and Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson.
What book should everybody read before they turn 18?
I recommend to young people who are starting off, the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s a story of success; Outliers is about what people who are successful have in common. It centers around the principle of the 10,000 hour rule, which is to say that to be an expert at anything, you need about 10,000 hours – or ten years. It was certainly the case for me and Diary of a Wimpy Kid; I needed 8 or 9 years to really get myself ready for the moment that I met an editor. And if I hadn’t put in that time, I wouldn’t have been successful.
With kids – young people – I envy the time they have in front of them because if they start on a path toward something, they can become quite proficient at it by the time they’re in their mid or late 20s, and be just about ready for anything. So that’s a book I’d recommend because it’s very aspirational.
I’d also recommend Range. It’s actually a counterpoint to Outliers in a way. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein.
What kind of books are on your bookshelf?
I’m a bookstore owner, so I’m constantly reading books written by the authors who are coming through or have just been through. I just read a book by Anthony Horowitz called A Line to Kill. I ready the Ruby Bridges autobiography. Dragon Hoops by Gene Yang. Rebecca Stead’s latest book – The List of Things That Will Not Change – I really liked it.
As far as books I like to read myself, I like to read books that do political analysis. I’m reading Peril, right now, by Bob Woodward. Any books that helps you be a better thinker is the kind of thing I really like. Range by David Epstein is great. The Malcolm Gladwell catalogue is great. And I’ll read anything by Bill Bryson, as well.
What is your favorite place to read?
In bed is a good place. Truthfully, whenever I can listen to a good book rather than read, I do. Because then I can be walking at the same time, which is really good for me. And I really do consider listening to be reading. It feels the same to me, in terms of absorbing information.
Who is your favorite all-time character from a book?
Peter Hatcher from Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. He’s a relatable kid. He’s sort of put upon; he’s having a difficult time. But he’s an original character. I think maybe that Greg wouldn’t exist unless Peter Hatcher existed first.
If you could have dinner with three authors from any period in time, who would you pick?
J.R.R. Tolkien. Bill Bryson. And…I’d go with David Epstein, who wrote Range.
What are the children in your life currently reading?
Truthfully, my older son is just reading whatever he’s being told to read in school. He’s probably not reading for pleasure right now at all. And with my younger son, I saw that Into the Wild was assigned to him, so he read that and The Catcher in the Rye recently.
Are your boys into Diary of a Wimpy Kid books?
They haven’t gotten the newest book yet and I think they’re right at the age level where I’d have to prod them or nudge them to read it. They wouldn’t naturally read it. But this one is about basketball so I think they’d be more apt to pick it up.
Do you have a favorite quote from literature? If so, what is it?
I actually love the way The Hobbit starts off:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
I like it because it starts very humbly but then it turns into a grand adventure.
Since you’re driving through North Carolina, what has been your favorite part about NC?
I’m going to say the barbeque. We’ve been to a few authentic places, and that’s been nice. I grew up in Maryland so I was sort of on the I’m going to say the barbeque. We’ve been to a few authentic places, and that’s been nice. I grew up in Maryland so I was sort of on the edge of the south. I live in Massachusetts now and barbeque – and good fried chicken — is hard to come by. The food has been the best thing here so far.
Thank you to Jeff for taking the time to thoughtfully answer our questions! You can read more about Jeff Kinney here.