- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 9, 2011

BOSTON | Jeff Kinney has made more than enough money writing about one wimpy kid to live comfortably for the rest of his life.

But thinking about the millions of children he reaches each month through the popular children’s website Poptropica.com makes him keep his day job.

“It’s the other great love of my life,” says Mr. Kinney, author of the best-selling “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book and movie series. “It’s very difficult to walk away from an audience of 10 million kids a month. To know that you can make a positive impact on what they’re learning and what they’re experiencing online is sort of addictive.”

The books are told from the perspective of Greg Heffley, a self-centered middle school boy whose angst over growing up — and dealing with bullies, girls and sibling rivalry among other things — is conveyed in funny stories and simple sketches. On Poptropica, children create their own avatars and can play and learn while exploring virtual islands through storytelling.

Next week, Mr. Kinney will bring his Wimpy Kid books to Poptropica with a new Wimpy Wonderland island. A movie, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” was released last year, and a second movie, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules,” is set to be released March 25.

Mr. Kinney, the father of two boys, sees himself as part author, part cartoonist, part Web designer and all dad.

“There’s a lot of junk in the world for kids, and we try not to add to that. We try to create something that’s quality,” says Mr. Kinney, who lives in Plainville, a small town about 30 miles southwest of Boston, on the Rhode Island border.

In 2001, while he was working on the book, he took a job at the Boston-based Family Education Network, a business unit of Pearson PLC, publisher of the Financial Times and Penguin books. He worked as a design director for various websites, including funbrain.com, a popular youth site for online educational games. Parts of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” were first published on funbrain in 2004.

In 2007, the Family Education Network launched Poptropica, a site Mr. Kinney came up with while mowing his lawn. In a little more than three years, Poptropica has become one of the largest virtual websites for pre-teens, averaging 8 million to 10 million unique visitors monthly.

Mr. Kinney’s boss, Jess Brallier, says Mr. Kinney’s work on the Wimpy Kid books and Poptropica may look easy but Mr. Kinney does things over and over until they’re just right. Mr. Kinney is creative director and executive producer of Poptropica, and he works on every aspect of the site, from creating the islands to making sure the chat with historic characters is programmed so children have no real contact with anyone else using the site.

“He’ll animate and re-animate. He will work on a word for four hours,” Mr. Brallier says. “I think he’s a perfectionist because he doesn’t want to let people down, and it’s a responsibility he feels, especially with kids.”

For Mr. Kinney, the success he has had with the Wimpy Kid and Poptropica still seems surprising to him.

He grew up in suburban Maryland reading the comics pages and longing to be a cartoonist. In college, he published a comic strip about a freshman in several school newspapers, but then spent three years struggling to get the strip syndicated, receiving more than 50 rejection letters. The idea for the Wimpy Kid books came to him in 1998 and took nine years to get published.

“I was writing a journal at the time, keeping a journal of my own life, with text interspersed with my drawings,” he says. “I realized that was a really good format.”

Mr. Kinney’s goal was to publish one book. He never imagined that his idea for the Wimpy Kid would turn into a series of books that would stay on the New York Times’ best-seller list for almost four years.

Mr. Kinney says Greg, the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” protagonist, is loosely based on his own childhood experiences. “My worst points are reflected in Greg, so I’d say he’s a cartoon exaggeration of my prepubescent self,” he explains.

Mr. Kinney says he writes for adults, many of whom can look back and laugh at their middle school years. But the books have been a runaway hit with children, particularly those ages 8 to 11, and are known among parents and teachers for holding the interest of reluctant readers. There are now 42 million Wimpy Kid books in print — translated into 40 languages — including five books in the series, plus a movie diary and a do-it-yourself journal.

Mr. Kinney downplays his success, saying only half-jokingly that he sees his books “as a gateway to more legitimate reading.”

“It will always stick with me that I couldn’t break onto the comics pages,” he says. “On the flip side, when I go to an authors’ convention, I feel like I’m not quite a real author because I use cartoon drawings to bolster my writing.”

In the end, Mr. Kinney says he feels more like a cartoonist.

Mr. Kinney’s friends say he has remained the same modest, self-deprecating guy he was in college, when he was known for drawing caricatures of everyone in his dormitory, playing practical jokes on people and juggling knives.

“I think he steps back from it every day and says, ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’” says Aaron Nicodemus, a friend who attended Villanova with Mr. Kinney before latter transferred to the University of Maryland. “He was always surprised, like, ‘Really, you want to market it to kids? You really want to split it into three books?’ It was always a pleasant surprise to him.”

For Mr. Kinney, balancing the books, the movies, Poptropica and his family isn’t easy. Most days, Mr. Kinney, who recently turned 40, works on Poptropica in his home office, then works on his Wimpy Kid books nights and on weekends. He works from the Family Education Network offices in Boston once or twice a week. Working from home allows him to spend time with his wife, Julie, and sons, Will, 8, and Grant, 5. He’s also a Cub Scout leader.

“Our life, in most ways, is very normal,” he says.

His sons’ reaction to their dad’s books has been as understated as his.

“My 5-year-old makes it clear to me that my books are not his favorites,” Mr. Kinney says, laughing.

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