If you have children, chances are Jeff Kinney’s words have been read aloud in your home. Kinney is the author of the mega-successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. My two daughters are big fans, and, in turn, I‘ve read the books along with them. Kinney is an inspired author and his books (formatted as graphic novels) take me back to the fun I had as a kid voraciously ripping through comic book after comic book.
Beyond his books, however, I’ve had a certain interest in Jeff Kinney: He, his wife and two kids live in Plainville, Massachusetts, a small town outside of Boston which also happens to be my hometown. My family is still heavily represented in Plainville (three of my brothers, two sisters, their collective broods, and our mother still live there), and I’ve heard from them that Kinney hasn’t merely made Plainville his home, but he’s truly become an involved member of the community. I hear his name mentioned from time to time by my brother in various contexts: Kinney coaches kids sports teams, leads a Cub Scout den, and even bought the 100-year-old general store — abandoned for the past 20 years — where I worked as a kid. Though Kinney didn’t know me before this interview, he’d heard of my father, Jack Flynn, who was a true character in the town and an anchor in the community for decades.
It was great to finally cross paths with Kinney in the context of Disney Dads. We chatted about Plainville, which he said he and his wife chose as a place to live via a Venn Diagram drawn on a map (no kidding), life as a dad, his “Wimpy” ink-child Greg Heffley, and life growing up in Fort Washington, Maryland.
I began by asking about his own dad and childhood.
“My most fond memories of spending time with my father,” said Kinney, “were when he took me out canoeing about once a week. We’d go out on Sunday morning, and we’d often shoot BB guns at these little ships he made and floated out on the water.
“We would also go on camping trips and go hiking in something called Dark Hollow Falls [in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia]. You would descend this rocky trail and eventually get rewarded with the sight of a beautiful waterfall, and then also we’d climb up Stony Man Trail, which was a nice scramble up a mountainside. Afterwards, we’d always go buy fireworks and tchotchkes at a trading post. I loved doing those things and I loved the rhythm of doing those things over and over again.
“I remember one particular time when I went camping with my father and I had a friend with me. My father told us a ghost story that really just scared the bejeezus out of us. My friend still talks about the story of ‘Silas Scratch,’ who was the character [in that ghost story] that my father made up. That moment really resonated with me — in fact, I just recently wrote a Greg Heffley story that centered around Silas Scratch.
“But probably the way my father influenced me the most was that he fostered a love of comics in me. He introduced me to these great Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics from the 1950s and ‘60s that were written by Carl Barks. I consider them to be the best form of storytelling I’ve ever read. My father always made sure to leave the comics page open in the newspaper in the morning so we kids could read them. I think that without my father, I wouldn’t have ended up on the career path that I’m on.”
The source of Kinney’s early inspiration is now making its way to another generation. “Fantagraphics is re-releasing those [Carl Barks] comics in hardcover form, so it’s great because I’m able to buy those and pass them on to my kids.”
A love of comics isn’t the only thing Kinney inherited from his parents; their legacy can also be found in his approach to parenting.
“My mother and my father,” Kinney reflected, “were very different from one another in a lot of ways. I think that what my father represented was — he was a military man — he was very disciplined and regimented; my mother was very driven and creative, but her obligations were all over the place. So I think [as a dad myself] I took from both of them in a way.
“The biggest challenge I face now as a dad is really finding enough time for my kids. It’s the big struggle of my life. I love being with my kids and doing things with them, and coaching their sports teams — I’m also a cubmaster and a den leader in their Cub Scout pack, but I do have a lot of obligations, and a lot of time when I’m away from home, so those are tough times. I try to stay in touch using Facetime and things like that when I travel, but that’s the biggest struggle for me.
As a writer, Kinney finds a wealth of material for his books in his life as both a child and a parent.
“My ‘Wimpy Kid’ books,” Kinney continued, “capture sort of a bizarro version of my childhood, where nothing is exactly true but there’s a lot of truth in them, [and] in the story. I think that the values in the book, and especially the values as related to parenting, come from my own experience.”
Being a fan and avid reader of the “Wimpy Kid” books, I felt compelled to confess something to Kinney: I both identify with and dislike Greg Heffley, the title character of the series. I asked how his young readers generally react to Greg.
“I’m not sure how kids react to Greg,” Kinney responded. “I do know that they don’t see him as a role model, and I don’t see a lot of kids emulating Greg, but I think for me, I don’t think of Greg as likeable or unlikeable: I think of him as being relatable, and to me he’s very relatable. A lot of his flaws are just magnifications of my own flaws, and, by extension, most people’s.”
As our interview wound down,I asked Kinney my final question: Any advice for other dads, particularly new dads?
“What I’ve been happy to see as a parent is that there’s a lot of acceptance in parents for their children. Sometimes you think of the stereotype of the athletic dad trying to get his wimpy son to become an athlete, or to love sports — I don’t see so much of that. What I see is a lot of acceptance by parents of who their kids are. What I’d recommend to new parents is to try to understand what makes your children tick, and then love and support them for who they are.”