Seems to me that if you’re a man who writes mega-successful kids’ books, you must know a thing or two about being a good dad. If nothing else, you have to know how to relate to kids and how to tell a good story that will engage them.
I figured Jeff Kinney, the author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, would be such a dad. He’s sold more than 165 million copies since the series’ launch in 2007. The eleventh book, Double Down, was published in November. The books have been printed in 45 languages, and the first was translated into Latin and presented to Pope Francis. The third and fourth books hit number one on the New York Times Best Sellers list; the fourth, Dog Days, was the best-selling book of 2009. The three Wimpy Kid movies have grossed more than $225 million, and a fourth is on the way. So is a stage musical.
I met with Kinney at the bookshop he owns in the small town of Plainville, Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and their two sons. At 46, Kinney has a boyish look. He’s tall and has a kind face, a ready handshake, and a willingness to talk. I asked about the influence his kids have on the Wimpy Kid books.
“Surprisingly, I’m not getting a lot of material directly from my kids,” he said, laughing. “My kids are pretty even, balanced kids, and Greg Heffley and those characters are pretty extreme. So where I am getting material is by seeing the world of their friends and their teachers and homework and sort of the larger infrastructure around them. That’s what fuels my new ideas. But most of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I would say, comes from memory or comes from my observations as an adult.”
Most dads work normal jobs. They have 40-hour workweeks and bosses. Kinney, on the other hand, has a less-typical job, and global domination wasn’t his plan. Neither was having kids.
“I always wanted to be married,” he told me. “I didn’t think it through much past that point. But I knew from the time I was in kindergarten that I was going to be married. And I love having kids.”
Kinney’s eyes sparkled. “The first year, you’ve got this being in your house that you feel like you don’t know how to take care of. I think, pretty early on, I was interested in my son’s development. We did the baby sign language, and my older son was especially adept at picking up different signs, so by the time he was one he knew lots of words and probably 80 signs. He could really tell you what he was thinking. So I got engaged pretty early on. And really enthusiastic.”
Surely enthusiasm is one of the keys to being a successful dad. It leads to engagement, and the best dads are engaged in their child’s life. They pay attention to what their kids are interested in, who their kids are, and who they want to be.
“I recently was going into some dangerous territory on my world tour,” Kinney said, “and I wrote my kids a letter in case anything happened to me. I was like, if you had to say it in one page, what do you hope for your kids? I hope that they’ll be kind and productive. If you’re productive, then you’re going to be happy. And if you’re kind to other people, you’re going to be happy. And the people around you are going to be happy. I think a lot about what do I want for my children, and that’s really it. I just want them to have a lot of good friends around them. I want them to have good relationships with their families.”
An Unlikely Story stands on the site of a building that has housed a general store, a barbershop, and a drug store. After Kinney bought it in 2012, he was forced to demolish it. The new building houses the bookshop, a café, a performance space on the second floor (called the Second Story), and his office. Kinney designed it to be a place where the thrill and wonder of reading could be celebrated. The place has a warm, welcoming feel. Along the ceiling line are several wooden signs that recount the location’s rich history. The floors and beams are reclaimed wood that’s more than 100 years old. The chairs on the front porch and the café tables are made of Indonesian boat wood gathered after the 2004 tsunami. The most dramatic décor is the flock of flying books trailing two flying broomsticks chasing a winged golden snitch. It’s breathtaking.
The model dad
“I would say that my greatest achievement as a dad is probably modeling ambition and productivity for my kids,” he told me. “I’ve gotten into construction. I’ve gotten into retail. We’re working on a musical. I’m working on an animated television special. Also, a few feature films. And then I have a regular job as a creative officer for a children’s website. So I think I’m modeling for my kids that there’s a lot that they can do.”
In the almost decade since the Wimpy Kid series launched, Kinney has had his finger on the pulse of what young readers find funny and cool. Through his books, 217 pages at a time, he’s perfected the art of connecting with kids. I wonder what advice he has for dads trying to do the same thing.
Looking through a large window to the small-town street below, he said, “I think the best advice I can give is for the father to see if there’s an intersection between his kids’ interests and his own interests. Because if you spend time with your kids that’s authentic, where you’re both doing something you enjoy rather than favoring the interest of one person or another, then I think that you’ll have a much deeper connection with your kids.”