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Cheese, Wimpy Kids And The Perils Of Middle School

Oct 22, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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The Bible says that the meek might one day inherit the earth. For now, one particularly meek kid named Greg Heffley is burning up children's book best-seller lists.

Greg is the smart-mouthed sad-sack protagonist of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid book series (read an excerpt). As Kinney tells Michele Norris, his character isn't a bad kid — just a "not-fully-formed person."

"I think most of Greg's unhappiness, he brings upon himself," the author explains. "Greg can't win, because that's Charlie Brown trying to kick the football and not kicking it. It's a device. He's a sad sack."

Kinney didn't always intend to write about middle school life. After college, he wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist, but after sending out his work and receiving a pile of rejection letters, he says, he realized he didn't have the artistic talents to draw at that level: "So what I decided to do was write and draw as a seventh-grade boy, because that's where I maxed out."

Kinney was also attracted to middle school for another reason: its inherent drama.

"The fact that you really and truly do have kids who are twice the size of other kids and at various stages of development — it feels like a dangerous place," he says. "I thought it was an unexplored or under-appreciated place for a comedy."

The books in the Wimpy Kidseries generally revolve around the various embarrassments Greg experiences at the hands of his family and school friends. In the first book of the series, a moldy hunk of sweet cheese acts as what Kinney calls "nuclear Cooties." Kids run up to touch the cheese, then chase each other, trying to pass on its germ. The incident is based on a memory Kinney has of growing up, when a Boy Scout made the smaller kids do push-ups into a piece of cheese.

Kinney, who describes his middle school self as an average kid who had his wimpy moments, says he draws on experiences from his past while writing: "When I was on the swim team, I used to hide out from my coach, and hiding out in one of the stalls, I would literally wrap myself in toilet paper so as not to get hypothermia. I keep thinking that that was where Greg Heffley was born."

As for the parents who complain that his books are too snarky, Kinney says, "My books are harmless and fun, and they get kids to read. If anything, I think that these books are turning kids on to reading, and they are going to move on to more legitimate reading in the future, and that's a good thing."

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