When author Jeff Kinney began writing the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series more than 15 years ago, he set out to create a comic that would resonate with adults and live in the humor section of bookstores.
“I’m so glad I didn’t know I was writing for children because I think often when an adult writes a children’s book, they start with the lesson in mind. And so the priority of the book becomes the lesson,” Kinney recalled in a recent interview with CNN. “I focus on humor and I focus on things that would make me laugh. And I think that’s part of the secret of ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid.’”
As it turned out, Kinney’s “secret sauce” of chronicling Greg Heffley’s awkward, hilarious, and highly relatable high school life became wildly popular with young readers. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” has sold more than 275 million copies, according to its publisher, and the 17th book in the series, “Diper Överlöde,” will be released on October 25.
“Greg is a weakling. He usually means something like a physical weakling, but it can also simply mean someone who isn’t that effective. And I think Greg feels that way,” Kinney said. “If you look at him on the cover of the first book, you know everything you need to know about Greg. He feels like he’s carrying the weight of the world in that backpack he’s carrying.”
Kinney said that he thinks of Greg more as a cartoon character than a literary character. With that, he explained, comes a commitment to consistency with his audience.
“When you have a cartoon character, it’s a promise to the reader that it won’t go away and it won’t change or evolve that much. They are recognizable,” Kinney said. “Children grow up out of my books, of course, but it’s a great comfort to know that the story continues…these books have been a constant part of many young people’s lives for a long time. It’s kind of cool to think that you’re part of the fabric of people’s growing years.”
Exposing children to a wide range of books is something Kinney values, both as an author and co-founder of the independent bookstore An Unlikely Story in Plainville, Massachusetts, which he owns with his wife.
When asked about a recent cultural movement to ban various books from school and public libraries, Kinney cited a letter to Congress signed by him and over a thousand other authors, written by two-time Newbery Honor winner Christina Soontornvat: “’Reading stories that reflect the diversity of our world generates empathy and respect for the humanity of all’”.
“Representation is not just a buzzword,” Kinney added. “It’s essential. Sometimes it’s essential to a child’s long-term survival. I think we should all make sure our children experience different kinds of viewpoints because it makes us better as a person and it makes us better as a country.”
With that goal in mind, here are five Kinney-recommended books for high school readers:
“The door of no return” by Kwame Alexander
In this story-inspired novel, a sudden loss sends 11-year-old Kofi Offin on a “harrowing journey across land and sea, and far from everything he loves,” reads the publisher’s story description.
“Class Act: New Boy,by Jerry Craft
A graphic novel with heart and humor, eighth grader Drew Ellis is one of the few kids of color in a prestigious private school. As social pressures mount, “will Drew find a way to bridge the gap so that he and his friends can truly accept each other? And most importantly, will he finally be able to accept himself? asks the publisher’s synopsis.
“Three Keys” by Kelly Yang
A sequel to the award-winning novel “Front Desk,” sixth grader Mia faces new challenges at school and at home at her family’s Calivista Motel. “But if anyone can find the key to get through turbulent times,” the author’s description reads, “it’s Mia Tang!”
“The Last Last Day of Summer” by Lamar Giles
A magical story with imagination and heroism about two adventurous cousins who wish for a long summer and accidentally freeze time. According to the publisher’s synopsis, kids learn that “the secrets hidden between the seconds, minutes, and hours aren’t as much fun as they’d hoped.”
“Children will be human” by Justin Baldon
A guide to building self-esteem for boys ages 11 and up, producer, actor, and author Baldoni explores social and emotional learning around confidence, courage, strength, and masculinity. “This book isn’t about learning the boys’ club rules,” says one tagline, “it’s about UNLEARNING THEM.”