Jeff Kinney Author of the Wimpy Kid on reading
Jeff Kinney knows exactly why his Diary of a Wimpy Kid series appeals to reluctant readers. “If there is one lesson I’d like kids to take away from my stories, it is that reading is fun.”
He thinks it is vital for parents and teachers to strongly encourage children to read whatever they are interested in and will enjoy, no matter what it is: “One of the things I said to my own children is that I will never say no to getting them a book.”
He highlights the importance of audiobooks and of reading to children as often as possible, especially if they are reluctant. “An adult who’s reading can deliver the intent of the author through tone and cadence that a kid can’t always get reading by themselves.” When being read to, reluctant readers can see that reading is pleasurable.
Another tip, he suggests, is to take reluctant readers to events where they can meet authors face to face. “It makes the writing process real for them. It shows them a pathway into writing their own stories.”
Kinney’s mother was an early childhood educator and he comes from a family of teachers. He says of current trends in education: “I understand the need to hold teachers and schools accountable, but I wish there wasn’t such emphasis on testing these days and that teachers could be more creative.
“The arts were such an important part of my schooling. For a lot of kids, art and music saved them. I think a school without the arts is not addressing that needs of all its students.”
Kinney’s 13th book in the series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Meltdown, is published on 30 October, furthering the adventures of his hugely successful character Greg Heffley. “Greg is a kid who’s not living up to his potential,” Kinney says. “He’s bright but a bit lazy, and a lot of kids can relate to that.”
A former newspaper cartoonist, Kinney’s speciality is to tell his stories with the help of funny illustrations. “As a student, I remember reading textbooks and thinking that if I could just get through the text to an image, I would be OK. The image was a reward, the image was a break. So in my books, that’s really what I’m trying to do – to keep stringing the reader along with these little rewards.”
He sees the illustrations as propelling the plot forward. They are “like having candy with your vegetables”, offering a bridge between picture books and books with chapters and no illustrations.
“Lush picture books with beautiful illustrations send a message that reading is fun and books are good things. But once children are reading, we hand them dense chapter books without pictures. I think sometimes kids look at these books and say, ‘maybe I don’t like reading after all’.”
Research last year by the National Literacy Trust showed that by the age of 14, children who enjoy reading have a reading age 3.3 years ahead of their peers who don’t enjoy it. Further research by the trust, published last month, revealed that children with above-average reading skills are three times more likely to have good mental wellbeing than those with reading skills below the level expected for their age.
“Books uniquely teach empathy because they allow the reader to see life from a different point of view,” says Kinney. “This is a time, especially in the US, when empathy is in short supply, so I really hope I’m doing my job and turning kids into readers.”
The success of his series, which has sold more than 200m copies worldwide and inspired four feature films, has taught him a lot about what children enjoy reading. “I keep hearing how important it is for kids to feel seen – and they can feel seen by an author, when an author recognises their situation and describes the way they feel.”
Kinney tries not to underestimate how mature and sophisticated his eight- to 12-year-old readers can be, and avoids trying to teach children how to behave. “Kids can understand irony,” he says. His stories are deliberately subversive. “Kids like to read about somebody who is having it a little bit worse than they are. They feel like they are in on the joke.”