ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Move over Harry Potter. Step aside, "Bridge to Terabithia." There's a new set of titles dominating the bestseller list for kids' chapter books, and there is nothing fantasy about these. It's "The Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series, written and drawn by Jeff Kinney. These are the journals of Greg Heffley, detailing his trials as a scrawny kid, making the life-changing transition from elementary to middle school.
Mr. JONAH ERINSON (Student): I like the humor in it. It's very, very funny.
SEABROOK: Jonah Erinson is a big Wimpy Kid fan. He's a student with Mrs. Rushfield's third grade class at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. Here Jonah reads from the latest book, "Roderick Rules," about Greg and his bully of a brother Roderick getting punished after a pushing match. Jonah also describes one of the book's illustrations to his classmates.
Mr. ERINSON: Mom told me that Roderick and I each had to write down what we did wrong. And then we had to draw a picture to go along with it. Well, Mom's idea might have worked great on a bunch of four-year-olds, but he's going to have to think of something better if she wants me and Roderick to get along. And it shows Greg's drawing and it says I will not call Roderick names. And then it shows Greg calling Roderick, who in this picture is a baby. He's literally a baby, a bunny rabbit, and Roger's going wahhhh.
And then in the next picture, Roderick goes, I will not push Gregory. And so it shows Roderick pushing Gregory into this ocean with a shark in it, and he's saying, eehhhhhh! Something like that.
SEABROOK: If the kid's enthusiasm doesn't speak for itself, listen to this. The first book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 40 weeks. The second, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules," debuted this week at number one. Author Jeff Kinney joins me now. How are you?
Mr. JEFF KINNEY (Author): I'm great. Thank you so much for having me on your show.
SEABROOK: It's a pleasure. Let's describe these books for our listeners. They don't look like normal kids' chapter books. They're like copies of the main character's diary.
Mr. KINNEY: Right. I actually got the idea from being a failed cartoonist, actually. I really wanted to be a newspaper strip cartoonist. And I found myself playing far too many video games, so I started keeping a journal to kind of shame myself into writing my comic strips. But as I was writing a journal, I was doing these little doodles in the margins. And I thought that's a pretty appealing format.
SEABROOK: The stories are told from the point of view of Greg Heffley. He's the main character. He's the wimpy kid. This is his diary. Describe Greg for us.
Mr. KINNEY: I actually think Greg is a bit morally bankrupt. I think he's - he's petty, he's a little bit wicked. He's put upon, but he also treats the people underneath him a little bit badly. But I think that Greg's just kind of an average kid.
SEABROOK: Yeah, I mean, he's - try to think of an example of how he is not the best kid and not the worst kid.
Mr. KINNEY: I'm thinking about the one story where Greg, he does something wrong at school and he's going to get in trouble for it, or he can let his friend take the fall. And Greg's mother the night before kind if senses that something's wrong. She doesn't pry. She just tells Greg that he should do the right thing because he needs to live with the consequences of his actions.
And so Greg ultimately decides that the right thing, at least the right thing for himself, is to let his friend take the fall. And so then when Greg gets home, you know, from school that day, the mother asks, did you do the right thing? And Greg says, yeah, and she takes him out for ice cream.
And I think in Greg's universe, in Greg's morality, he really did do the right thing. And what I like about the book is that by doing it as a diary or journal, there's no adult around to correct Greg.
SEABROOK: Do you think that's why kids identify with Greg?
Mr. KINNEY: I think so and I hope so. I hope that kids can recognize that Greg doesn't do the right thing. That's something that I worried about when releasing this to a kid audience. Because I actually wrote it for adults. I was trying to write a book that was nostalgic, like "The Wonder Years" or "A Christmas Story," and instead it's going right to the kids, which is really interesting for me.
SEABROOK: I wonder what you think adults could get from this. Why were you writing this for adults?
Mr. KINNEY: I thought that the irony in the book was more suited for a more sophisticated sense of humor. But maybe in a way I wasn't really giving kids enough credit for what they can understand.
SEABROOK: It's really an important time for kids, the kids that read your books, not the adults - the transformation from elementary school to middle school. And Greg is struggling with home not to be a kid anymore. Doesn't want to be elementary school. He wants to be cool, like middle school. He's in a lot of turmoil.
Mr. KINNEY: Yes, he is. It's true. I think that seventh and eighth grade, it really is the toughest time for a kid. Because you haven't quite grown into your body yet. And where I grew up they had junior high, which was like seventh and eighth grade together. And I...
SEABROOK: That's what I went to, yeah.
Mr. KINNEY: And I always thought of it as they were segregating you from the general population. I was like what do we do with these people? We'll just put them over here. And you really did have some kids who were twice the size of other kids. Like literally twice the size. And so I just thought that that was a great setting.
And I think if we as adults were put back into our seventh and eighth grade bodies and put...
SEABROOK: Oh God.
Mr. KINNEY: ...into those situations, that we wouldn't act with any more maturity. You know, we would all revert into the behaviors that we had at that age.
SEABROOK: Certainly seems like there is a hunger for this stuff, at least among the third graders that our producer here talked to. And the big question that they have for you, Jeff Kinney, is...
Mr. KINNEY: Okay.
SEABROOK: ...can we get more?
Mr. KINNEY: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KINNEY: Absolutely.
SEABROOK: What's next for Greg Heffley, your character?
Mr. KINNEY: Well, the third book is going to be about a conflict that Greg has with his father that puts him into mortal peril. He's going to get shipped off to military academy unless he changes his ways. And even you can understand the awfulness of that, I think.
SEABROOK: The terror, the terror.
Mr. KINNEY: And then the fourth book will be about Greg's summer. And then the fifth book is undetermined.
SEABROOK: But at least three more to come at this point?
Mr. KINNEY: At least three more to come, absolutely.
SEABROOK: Jeff Kinney is the author of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." The second book in the series just came out. It's subtitled "Roderick Rules." And both titles now sit atop of the New York Times bestseller list for children's chapter books. Jeff Kinney, thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. KINNEY: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
SEABROOK: And special thanks to Mrs. Rushfield and her third grade class. You can read an excerpt about the wimpy kid's battles with his brother and see a few of Greg's drawings at NPR.org/books.
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SEABROOK: Adolescence is a good reminder that try as we may to rise above the evolutionary fray, we humans are animals; vertebrates in fact, and mammals more specifically. That means we share most of our DNA with a little guy who is famous today - Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who this morning warned of six more weeks of winter.
I bring this up - our similarities with the pudgy groundhog - because we too are affected by the light at this time of year. Scientists now find empirical evidence for this, but our species has long known that for those of us in temperate zones, early February is a time when sunlight reaches about 10 hours a day.
That signals birds, trees and snakes - and yes, even us - that we're past the midnight of the year and the dawn of spring is coming. Gaelic and Celtic cultures call this time imbulk. It later became St. Brigid's Day after an Irish nun. And our parting words tonight come from a Scottish Gaelic proverb.
It says the serpent will come from the hole on the brown day of bride, though there should be three feet of snow on the flat surface of the ground.
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SEABROOK: Words of hope and spring on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.