Bankstreet for Children

Live from Bank Street: ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’

Posted by Claire Daniel on November 22, 2011

Author Jeff Kinney inspires students in the School for Children and observers all over the world.

In the world of children’s literature, Jeff Kinney and his character Greg Heffley are rock stars, evidenced by the fact that the latest book, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever, is currently outpacing Steve Jobs’ biography on Amazon. So when the official Wimpy Kid tour bus idled at the corner of 112th and Riverside on November 15, heads turned and iPhone cameras flashed.

Kinney’s destination was Bank Street College, where he spoke to a packed auditorium of School for Children students, and a great many more: Bank Street Library, in collaboration with School Library Journal, live-streamed the event to nearly 790 classrooms and auditoriums worldwide.

The Author as Magician: Demystifying the Creative Process

 “I love stories, and I love collecting stories,” Kinney told the young crowd. “And Wimpy Kid is full of stories.”

His own story began when he was a student and aspiring newspaper cartoonist in 1989 at the University of Maryland, working on a comic strip called Igdoof. This was where Greg Heffley was born:

I was confident that my character was going to take on the world and I was going to be a big time cartoonist. But the truth is it took me a long time to break in at all. In fact, I got lots of these—this is a rejection letter. If you’re in a creative field, you’re probably going to get a lot of rejection too.

In Kinney’s case, rejection provided the inspiration for his character’s reinvention: 

My drawings didn’t look like professional cartoons. I drew like a kid who was still learning. That’s when I had my big moment and thought, "What if I draw as a kid on purpose?" That’s how I came up with the idea of Greg Heffley and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Kinney showed images from his idea book: the sketchbook where, over four years, he noted down story and character ideas that informed the writing of his first actual book. 

Good Reading: Graphic Novels 

As he flipped through slides, he spoke about where his ideas came from—basically everywhere. “Some came from my childhood. Some came from my brothers and sisters and friends.” 

One idea, he said, even came from Bank Street’s own Children’s Librarian Lisa Von Drasek, whom he saw give a panel discussion on graphic novels and literacy in middle school male readers.

“Boys like to read graphic novels and librarians and teachers often have different ideas about what they should be reading,” he recalled Von Drasek explaining. That disconnect, he pointed out, was the inspiration behind the ill-fated “reading is fun” club in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, where mothers and sons clash over what makes a “good book” good. From Kinney’s standpoint, “good reading is anything that makes you want to read more.”

Bank Street Graduate School’s Director of Reading and Literacy Programs Susan Goetz-Haver concurs. “Sometimes it seems that we are spending a lot of time teaching kids only to work with words, but I think images do add an important dimension,” says Goetz-Haver, who was part of a faculty group at Bank Street a few years ago that read graphic novels and then tracked how they were used in the classroom.

The difference, she noted, was markedly important: “It added another dimension in our ability to connect and really jump into the story.”

They found that for children, many of whom comprehend images more easily than text, graphic novels can make a real impact. “The illustrations add nuance and support children’s ability to read the words.”

She added that even for those students who don’t struggle, graphic novels promote a new kind of communications fluency demanded in today’s world. “My two grown sons work with and generate text and images in multimedia presentations,” she explains. Today’s students actually need to be prepared to “think about how images and words interact with each other.”

Kinney’s Q&A Session

The surprise appearance of Wimpy Kid movie stars Zachary Gordon and Robert Capron provoked an appreciative uproar, but it was the author Q&A that proved to be the most provocative.

Asked how much money his books made, Kinney chuckled and explained how the student could figure it out himself: multiply the price of the book by the six million copies sold. He cautioned however that “I don’t get all of the money,” perhaps thereby providing teachers with an “everyday math” lesson plan for the classroom, along with potential discussions about the publishing industry.

When asked why Greg Heffley was always sad on the book covers, Kinney said he thought it would make him more interesting. “I didn’t want him to be a hero. I wanted him to be a little bit like me. And to be honest with you, middle school wasn’t that easy for me.”

After the webcast, Kinney stayed a bit longer with SFC students to answer a few more questions—and a very palpable shift occurred: the students moved away from their connection to the text as readers and toward a focus on their potential agency as writers.

Asked how much fun it was to write a book, Kinney replied: “Not much fun at all—it’s tough.” He went on to say how long it takes him to write a book (about nine months), and to offer advice for aspiring writers: Be critical. Demand excellence of yourself. Seek constructive criticism. Show your work to others.

According to Goetz-Haver, “Many children find it amazing that there is a person on the other side of the writing experience—that the books they are reading have been written by someone they can talk to, someone who can make particular choices about a character or an illustration. They then begin to see themselves as people who can similarly use a piece of paper or a computer screen, and make choices about a character, how to describe something, or what happens next in the story.”

“What we saw here was the miracle of literacy,” said Von Drasek. For her, having an author come speak to the children is one of the greatest gifts educators can give them. “When you have an author standing here saying ‘When I was in school I felt this about reading, and this about writing,’ the disconnect between the story read on a website, book, or Kindle vanishes.”

“There’s a moment when they go ‘Ohh, somebody wrote this. This is somebody’s story. I like Jeff Kinney. Let me go to the shelf and get more books by him. The next step is, “Ohh... I write. I have a story to tell. I am a reader and a writer, right now.”

(Note: This webcast has been archived and is available for viewing.)