In between classes, young Terps regularly scroll their phones to read the campus newspaper — The Diamondback — while munching on Panda Express in the Stamp Student Union at the University of Maryland in College Park.
This Saturday, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” author Jeff Kinney returns to his alma matter for Maryland Day from 10 to 11:30 a.m., bringing excitement to a generation of college students who grew up reading the book series.
“We’re unveiling a statue of Greg Heffley, the ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ protagonist, my character,” Kinney told WTOP. “It’s going to live in the Student Union forever hopefully. I’m going to get to do the unveiling with (University President Dr. Darryl) Pines and my son, Will, who is actually a sophomore at Maryland now.”
The statue will be located indoors unlike the Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog statue in front of the Student Union.
“He’ll be under the shelter of rain, so if it’s a bad day outside and you don’t want to visit the Jim Henson-Kermit the Frog statue, go inside and maybe rub Greg’s nose for good luck on your next test (like the Testudo turtle statues),” Kinney said. “The first year the Greg Heffley balloon appeared in the Macy’s Day Parade, he was right behind Kermit the Frog, staring into his rear end, so it’s an appropriate place for my statue to be: behind Kermit.”
Born in Fort Washington, Maryland, Kinney graduated from Bishop McNamara High School in 1989 before transferring to the University of Maryland just in time for his sophomore year of undergraduate studies.
“Maryland was really starting to rise in its reputation,” he said. “These days I wouldn’t even be able to get into the college, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to get into a basketball game. So it’s really cool how much that university has grown in stature since I’ve been there.”
While on campus, Kinney created a popular comic strip called “Igdoof,” which ran in The Diamondback, where he also served as the graphics editor, headline writer and production manager above the South Campus Dining Hall. After four-and-a-half years, he graduated in 1993, but had a hard time finding a job in his dream vocation.
“I pivoted into oblivion,” Kinney said. “I wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist, but it didn’t work out. I tried for about three years to get my comics into newspapers, but nobody liked my work, so eventually I came up with this idea of ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid.’ I worked on it for a really long time, about eight years, and finally brought a sample packet to New York Comic Con and an editor liked what I did and that’s how I got started as a published author.”
His breakthrough novel “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” was published in 2007, following the struggles of Greg Heffley, an awkward middle-schooler who illustrates his daily life in a diary, or as Kinney would insist calling it a journal.
“He is a middle-school weakling, a little like Larry David for kids,” he said. “He’s not a hero, he’s not an anti-hero, he’s just an average kid who makes lots of mistakes, but hopefully people find them funny. I was a lot like Greg. I made lots of mistakes growing up. Everything I did wrong as a kid I amplified, put through the fiction blender, then put onto the page. Without the experiences I had growing up, Greg and his family wouldn’t exist.”
Roughly three weeks after publication, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” debuted on The New York Times bestseller list at No. 7, then slowly slid down the list to No. 8 and No. 9, so he thought his 15 minutes of fame were over.
“It was the most exciting day of my life,” Kinney said. “I was like, ‘At least I’ll have something to talk about at my high school reunion,’ but then it rebounded and got to No. 1. … It’s been on the bestseller list for 800 weeks.”
Today, the book franchise contains 17 official installments, not to mention various spinoffs. It’s also been adapted for the screen with four live-action films on Fox. When Disney bought Fox, the franchise was rebooted for at least three more films on Disney+, which Kinney can stream at his new home in Plainville, Massachusetts.
“It’s changed my life in innumerable ways,” he said. “I’ve gotten to travel all over the world to 29 of the 69 countries where the books are published, I’ve gotten to meet presidents, entertainment and sports figures. … I got to meet the Obamas in the White House with my family, and just last week, we got to meet President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, so this thing that I wrote has been a ticket or a key that has unlocked lots of different doors for me.”
Kinney was even invited to speak at last year’s University of Maryland commencement ceremony.
“It was really exciting to have that opportunity to address the graduating student body,” he said. “I’m not sure that I really deserved to be up there because I was like a 2-point-something G.P.A. student when I was there. … It’s been really nice to be embraced by the university and kind of come home in that way.”