COLLEGE PARK–In the first “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book, protagonist Greg Heffley — a skinny middle-schooler — and his buddy Rowley try to build a gigantic snowman. Instead they end up rolling a snowball so big they cannot push it, tearing up a newly sodded lawn in the process.
Like many episodes in the Wimpy Kid series, that scene was borrowed directly from author Jeff Kinney’s memories of growing up in Maryland.
“Those kinds of stories are things I like to put in my books – the real childhood-feel kinds of stories,” Kinney said in an interview before an appearance at the National Book Festival in Washington earlier this month.
So when you see Greg hiding from his swim coach in a locker room bathroom stall, wrapped in toilet paper to keep warm, you can imagine a young Jeff Kinney doing the same thing — because he did.
Kinney, 41, was born on Andrews Air Force Base, and grew up in Fort Washington. His father was an analyst at the Pentagon for most of his childhood and he went to Potomac Landing Elementary School before heading to Eugene Burroughs School in Accokeek for middle school.
“I think that my middle school experience was more scary than Greg Heffley’s middle school experience,” Kinney said. “I felt like we went from the safe confines of the elementary school to the really scary, almost prison yard environment of middle school. So it was terrifying for me.”
Despite his not-so-fond memories of middle school, Kinney said he chose to set the Wimpy Kid books during that period because having characters who are twice the size — and half as mature — as other characters makes for great comedy.
Greg is one of the smaller kids. He’s a slight boy with only three hairs on his head. He isn’t into sports, but he loves video games. He gets picked on by his older brother Rodrick and tries to maintain a decent reputation in his rough-and-tumble middle school hallways.
Kinney described Greg as “this kind of not fully formed person.”
“He’s full of imperfections, but he’s frozen in this kind of pre-adolescent amber forever,” he said.
Greg doesn’t always do or say the right thing. That’s why young readers relate to the books, which are designed to look like the doodle-filled journal of a tween boy. His young fans have kept the Wimpy Kid series on the bestseller lists since the first book appeared in 2007.
There also has been a trio of successful, live-action Wimpy Kid movies. A seventh book, “The Third Wheel (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Book 7),” comes out on Nov. 13. It focuses on Greg trying to get a date for a Valentine’s Day dance.
Like Greg, Kinney has had a long-standing interest in cartooning. After graduating from Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville in 1989, Kinney went to Villanova on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, where he published his first comic strip, “Igdoof.” After a year, he transferred to the University of Maryland, College Park.
Kinney had been interested in computer programming since his mother bought an Apple II computer in his early teenage years. He decided to major in computer science at Maryland. He also won a competitive spot for a cartoon strip in Maryland’s campus newspaper, The Diamondback, where he revived “Igdoof.”
Igdoof, the title character of the strip, was “a really awkward looking freshman with a huge nose and huge ears, but he had three strands of hair on top of his head,” Kinney said.
The character liked to draw cartoons, hated to study and enjoyed immature practical jokes.
“A lot of the DNA of my ‘Igdoof’ cartoons … have made their way into my Wimpy Kid books,” Kinney said.
One notable example: Igdoof’s self-portrait looked remarkably similar to Greg from the Wimpy Kid books.
Kinney was an enterprising guy and one of the most popular cartoonists The Diamondback has ever had, said Michael Fribush, general manager of Maryland Media, Inc., the newspaper’s parent company.
“I think he related to students in a very good way,” Fribush said. “We got a lot of reader response, more than we usually do for cartoonists.”
John Mortenson, a multimedia designer at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a 1995 Maryland graduate, started his own Diamondback cartoon strip, “Campus Interruptus,” a little over a year after Kinney’s “Igdoof” strip began.
Mortenson remembered Kinney as a soft-spoken, nice guy with a wry sense of humor. Kinney encouraged him and showed him some drawing tricks.
“People would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, your cartoon is so well drawn,’” he said. “They would come up to [Kinney] and say, ‘Your cartoon is hilarious.’ I would have preferred the hilarious comments.”
“Igdoof” was eventually picked up at three other West Coast colleges, according to a 1994 Washington Post profile about Kinney’s hopes to make the cartoon a syndicated comic strip.
Kinney tended to work right up to the deadline for his daily strips, Mortenson said.
He once asked Kinney how he’d come up with the idea for a clever strip set almost entirely in a pitch black room. “I ran out of time to do anything else but two eyeballs in a dark room,” Kinney told him.
Kinney also said his drawing technique has changed since his days at Maryland, when he would ink pencil drawings for “Igdoof.” He now creates all-digital drawings on a tablet.
Three and a half years into his computer science degree, Kinney said he was close to failing out because of all the time he spent cartooning.
He interned at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives during school breaks, and thought he might become an ATF agent. He decided to switch his major from computer science to criminal justice.
After graduating in 1993, Kinney hoped his newspaper cartooning career would take off. Instead he received a lot of rejection letters and took jobs doing newspaper layout, software production, and web design.
He eventually moved to New England, got married, and had two sons, now ages 7 and 9. And Kinney continued cartooning, keeping a notebook filled with his sketches and story ideas that would eventually become the Wimpy Kid series.
Some of the first Greg Heffley stories appeared on a children’s education game site (Funbrain.com) for which he was an online designer. Success finally came at the 2006 Comic Con convention in New York where Abrams Books picked up the Wimpy Kid idea.“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” was published in April 2007 and became a New York Times bestseller. Together, all six books have sold 75 million copies, according to the publisher.
In a Library of Congress book festival podcast this month, Kinney said he would like to see a “Wimpy Kid” TV cartoon.And he has no plans to end the book series starring the perpetual middle-schooler.“What I’ve decided is that these books don’t have to end,” he said. “I’ve just realized that the DNA of these characters is in comic strips so they can live forever.”