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Cheese, Wimpy Kids And The Perils Of Middle School

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Cheese, Wimpy Kids And The Perils Of Middle School

Books

Cheese, Wimpy Kids And The Perils Of Middle School

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The Bible says that the meek shall inherit the earth. Well, for now, one particularly meek kid is burning up children's bestseller list. That kid is Greg Heffley, the smart-mouthed sad-sack who's the lead character in the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" book series. The stories revolve around the various embarrassments he experiences at the hands of his family and his school friends. The fourth book in the series called "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days" has just been released. The author is Jeff Kinney.

Listen as he reads a diary entry about the world of those tantalizing supermarket tabloids.

Mr. JEFF KINNEY (Author, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days"): (Reading) Mom says tabloids are full of lies, but I think there are some really important stuff in those things. Grandma is always buying tabloids even though Mom doesn't approve. A few weeks ago, Grandma wasn't answering her phone, so Mom got worried and drove over to Grandma's to see if she was okay. Grandma was fine, but she wasn't picking up her phone because of something she read. And we see Grandma saying, cordless telephones erase the memory of the elderly. But when Mom asked Grandma where she got her information, Grandma said, The New York Times.

NORRIS: I spoke with Jeff Kinney earlier today. He said he set out to write a book for adults. I asked him how he got started.

Mr. KINNEY: After college, I really wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist. And what happened was I sent out my work every few months and got a pile of rejection letters back. And eventually, I realized that I didn't have the artistic talent to draw at that level. I thought that I could write at that level, but I couldn't draw at that level. And so what I decided to do was to write and draw as a seventh grade boy because that was sort of where I maxed out. And that's how Greg Heffley, my character, was born.

NORRIS: Now, you say that you maxed out in seventh grade, which of course I don't believe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: You sold too many books for us to buy that one. But is there something about the mind of a seventh grader that was particularly delicious as a writer and as an illustrator?

Mr. KINNEY: I think it was less about the mind of a seventh grader and more about the drama that exists in middle school. The fact that you really and truly do have kids who are twice the size of other kids in that various stages of development, and I thought it was - it just feels like a dangerous place, middle school. So I thought it was an unexplored or underappreciated place for comedy.

NORRIS: Well, I thought it would be a good idea to get input from the kids who actually read your books. So I asked young readers to send in their questions. We actually just shout out on the radio. And we got almost 400 responses, so many…

Mr. KINNEY: Wow.

NORRIS: …that I thought we could do much of the interview with the questions that had landed in our inbox. What do you think?

Mr. KINNEY: Great. Let's go for it.

NORRIS: Were you a wimpy kid?

Mr. KINNEY: I was an average kid, but I certainly had my wimpy moments, and a lot of those have made their way into the books. When I was on the swim team as a kid, I used to hide out from my coach by going into the bathroom and hiding out in one of the stalls. And I would literally wrap myself in toilet paper so as not to get hypothermia. And I keep thinking that that's where Greg Heffley was born.

NORRIS: You wrapped yourself in toilet paper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KINNEY: Do not linger on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KINNEY: What's the next question?

NORRIS: I just wonder how much toilet paper that would take.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KINNEY: Yeah. True story.

NORRIS: Well, Paul Kravel(ph) of Elkhart, Indiana, wants to know, why doesn't Greg ever win? And a similar question came from Heidi Miner(ph). She says, why did you make Greg's life so miserable?

Mr. KINNEY: I think most of Greg's unhappiness he brings upon himself. You know, you cannot really pity this character. He's a little bit narcissistic and he can be a crummy friend at times. But he's not a bad kid at all. He's just a not-fully-formed person.

NORRIS: A lot of kids asked about the font.

Mr. KINNEY: The font. Well, they caught me. I was trying to make it look like it was handwritten. But it's true, it's a font based on my handwriting.

NORRIS: And was that deliberate so the books would not look like traditional books?

Mr. KINNEY: Right. I want it to feel accessible also. And I think that when a kid opens my books, they feel like it's not too threatening.

NORRIS: A lot of kids asked about something that was actually in your first book, the cheese touch.

Mr. KINNEY: The cheese is part of the legend of the first book where there's this piece of cheese that sits underneath the new hoop on the blacktop. And rather than just kicking it to the side or throwing it away, the kids let this kind of mess build up around the cheese until it becomes this, you know, object of terror where nobody can touch it or even go near it or they will become ostracized. And I got the idea from, you know, just from cooties. So I was trying to come up with something like nuclear cooties, you know, the middle school equivalent of cooties.

NORRIS: Something like that happened in your own life, though, involving cheese?

Mr. KINNEY: You know, what I remember is that when I was in the Boy Scouts, somebody was making the smaller kids do push-ups into a piece of cheese, you know, in a hallway, so maybe that's what inspired it.

NORRIS: Jeff Kinney, it has been fun to talk to you. And if you actually want to see more Q&A with Jeff Kinney, more questions, more answers from him at our Web site, you can find that at npr.org.

And one last question before I let you go, what do you say to the parents who are ambivalent about this, who say that the books are just too snarky?

Mr. KINNEY: I think that there's stuff out there that's a whole lot more snarky. I think that my books are harmless and fun, and they get kids to read. And if anything, I think that these books are turning kids on to reading, and they're going to move on to more legitimate reading in the future. So I think that's a good thing.

NORRIS: Jeff Kinney, it's been great to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. KINNEY: Thank you.

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