Oh, how I’ve been waiting to write this.
It’s one of the things I’ve been itching to do in my pursuit to finally have the guts to go on the Internet and have a say in the things I love most, instead of hearing what other people have to say. Because for the record, I don’t think anyone has quite said the same thing I’m thinking when it comes to what’s going on lately with one of my favorite children’s book series of all time: Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
I have loved Diary of a Wimpy Kid since the series kicked off the phenomenon of the unlikely hero in children’s literature back in 2007. I have my mother to thank for exposing me to the series in its infancy: before then, my flagship children’s book of interest was Magic Tree House, a series that I couldn’t get enough of and still holds a place in my heart, even if I don’t read the books anymore (at least for now). But my mother, who was quite concerned about my MTH overdose, was intent on mitigating my homogenous reading tastes, and was largely unsuccessful until one day, she saw a copy of good ol’ Greg Heffley’s Journal in the back of a bookstore at our local mall that has since closed (and forever do I rue the day that mall betrayed me). She read it at first, and told me what was going on in it until a statement she made that caught my ear: a boy was denying that he was writing in a diary, despite what it said on the cover. There was something about it, this contradiction of the title through this boy insisting he had a journal to hide his embarrassment that has prevented me from putting the books down since, so much so that I still have gotten every subsequent book on the day it was released. With Diary of a Wimpy Kid, you don’t get stories of characters that everyone easily expects to be heroes that are ready to save the world and, even with the trails and tribulations that they face, are ultimately guaranteed to succeed which are so common in other stories, as great as the Harry Potters and Percy Jacksons of children’s literature are. But with author Jeff Kinney’s books, he found a new type of character: us. Where Harry Potter and Percy Jackson provide escapism, Diary of a Wimpy Kid provides an even deeper trip into reality: a reflection on just how realistically unfortunate life’s events can be, of which the only remedy there is to prevent us from slipping into some kind of depression is a nice, big dose of humor to remind us that life doesn’t have to be this serious.
And there’s no denying the series’ popularity and the impact it has had on readers around the world and children’s literature at large. Without Greg Heffley, there may very well have been no Nikki Maxwell, Rafe Khatchadorian, Timmy Failure or NERDS, and Nate Wright might not have gotten a book series himself. I still yearn to have Greg teach me how he puts out these “journals” on the first week of November every year. He has spawned three films, a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, another movie…
…and this is where I stop.
I think it’s safe for you to assume at this point that Jeff Kinney has had a profound impact on my life. In looking at his simplistic drawings compared to Sal Murdocca’s realistic illustrations, it marked a major turning point in the development of my art style. I read the online version of the books on Funbrain.com that predated the original publication, while also clicking on the site’s shortcut to play a fantastic virtual world named Poptropica…
Yes, to a lot of you, that’s a thing.
I will never forget the day I learned on the Diary of a Wimpy Kid website that Kinney also developed Poptropica as well. After several years of playing the game I loved (and inspired me to make my own virtual world), the discovery of my role model having made it was almost magical to me. I will never forget the initial announcement of a Diary of a Wimpy Kid film adaptation, and my countdown to the film and its sequels (and the curious decision to title the third film as the fourth book). I will never forget the initial announcement of the Parade balloon, and host Al Roker discussing in awe the achievements of the Boy Who Made Wimps Cool for the first time. I will never forget the day Jeff Kinney came to my local Barnes and Noble for a book singing of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul years later, where I (failingly) suggested to intern for him (which I didn’t really mind).
But then came the (soft) reboot to the films, adapting that very same book Kinney signed for me. Knowing how often Kinney was asked in interviews to continue the films, and the decent quality of the previous films up to that point, I was confident that my role model would do it again.
And then he didn’t.
At first, I was quite upset with the fanbase. I pretty much knew they were going to recast, because the actors had simply grown too old. I understood the love for the original cast however, and that it may be hard to let someone else take the roles that have held such residence in your heart. But as much as we hate to admit it, the past is the past, and the fanbase had to give these guys a chance. Some fans even suggested that they disservice the floating timeline of the books or even set it in the future just to keep the original cast. I just wanted the fanbase to stop complaining already.
But here’s the thing: Kinney wasn’t helping his case. Devon Bostick’s casting as Rodrick Heffley was considered to be one of the better castings of the original movies. I think it’s clear where I’m headed with this, but I apologize in advance: I’m sure he’s a good actor in his own right, but Charlie Wright just wasn’t the guy to fill in Bostick’s shoes. Like I said, I didn’t mind the recast, but there is still a thing called good casting. I was kind of shaken up after that, but I was still strong, especially since this time around, Kinney was writing the screenplay, so obviously the writer of his own characters should nail it better than anybody, right? Because Daniel Handler did A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix right and J.K. Rowling did Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them right, right?
Boy, was I dead wrong.
A 20% on Rotten Tomatoes later, and I found myself trying to answer what I feared would end up becoming one of life’s age-old questions: what the heck happened? I didn’t even end up seeing the movie (which greatly shocked my parents, and I told them everything I’m telling you now). No, I thought to myself that I was actually doing a favor for Kinney in not seeing this film. I couldn’t support this disservice to the original work and what made this franchise so great.
I did read the reviews though and the plot, and that’s all I will ever need. Before I continue, I shall quote the Poptropica Help Blog’s statements about some very insightful words from website developer Mitch Krpata below, which I will go back to later:
Mitch contends that there are many challenges to writing children’s media, as well as joys that make it easier. Although he’s writing for a child audience, he doesn’t feel like he’s “writing down” to them, affirming that kids are earnest and open to big ideas.
Based on what I read about the movie, it’s pretty clear Kinney forgot these most important words when it comes to children’s entertainment: that there is more to a story than just the visuals and the humor. There’s the story and the heart, the care that is being put into the product and letting the fans know that this is ultimately what you are doing this for, for them. To me, nothing scares me more than writing a story that has even the least bit of a questionable plot point, let alone a story that is downright bad, and this is why I now love Krpata (I already quite liked him before). Dare I bring it back up again, but how could you make Susan Heffley such an unlikeable mother? How could you make Rodrick’s lack of intelligence the only aspect of his character? How could you make so many references to YouTube, Snapchat and memes for no other purpose than to appear “relevant” to today’s generation, when children are already aware of all that? How could you inject the film with more of something as cheap as bathroom humor than anything else (and yes, the books do have this, but nowhere near the level seen in this movie) when Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, a film adaptation of a book series that has done it so much better, is coming out the next month??? I’ll say it once, I don’t have to say it a million times: unless you’re Dav Pilkey, don’t try bathroom humor. Just…don’t. It’s the single biggest writing “technique” that is made to disservice children’s entertainment.
In the months since the release of The Long Haul film, I’ve been actively checking online to see if, like many movies, there was going to be talk of a sequel. After all, I had expected that this would be the case if they were to recast, and this was possibly Kinney’s intent. But the news outlets and Kinney stayed quiet. After months of checking his Twitter, Kinney didn’t even have the audacity to at least give an apology or confirm the plans were canned. I would have even appreciated that! Even made more vague is the set up for an adaptation of The Getaway at the end of the film, which didn’t even come out yet at the time, which could mean that Kinney is already laying the groundwork? I don’t really know anymore, to be honest with you.
Speaking of The Getaway and the book series in general, I guess I should’ve seen this coming with the movie in a way, but I guess I couldn’t because I love the guy so much. As with the other books, I was quite excited to read the previous installment, Double Down. It had a great premise: Greg’s mother insisting that he try to broaden his horizons, and for once, he does and tries to make a movie. And while I won’t reveal the plot points (I will just call them plot points), it was clear that there was a story happening there. I thought I knew where it was headed, and it looked like it was going to be fantastic. But boy, did everything fall flat at the end, despite the humor that continues to never fail me. Now comes The Getaway, which as of this writing I didn’t read too much of yet, but here’s the thing: somebody basically spoiled it for me, and stabbed me in the heart. And I’m not talking the traditional spoilery either: I read Big Nate daily on GoComics.com, where someone compared a strip to the book version of The Long Haul in the comments. This sparked a discussion in which they basically not only said that The Getaway was bad, but this was the first time on the Internet I truly saw a conversation similar to this very article, which was the last straw for me to actually write this. I’m still going to read the book because again, I will always love the series, but this time around, I will be under the mindset of seeing what not to do in a story at this point.
And then there was the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year. It looked like even Al Roker was catching on, because when Greg passed by this time around, Roker simply stated, “And that’s the Wimpy Kid!” before it flew off. No stopping, no numbers, nothing, despite the fact that the series just celebrated its tenth birthday.
Like I said earlier, I found myself trying to answer what I feared would end up becoming one of life’s age-old questions: what’s going on? But after much investigation, I finally have the answer.
So…what is going on?
Too Much Wimp, Too Little Pop
If you get what I mean from the title, it’s increasingly looking quite obvious. Now that I’ve discussed the Diary of a Wimpy Kid side of things, it’s time that I talk about the other IP Kinney is famously (or is he?) known for: Poptropica.
It’s no secret that Kinney has often devoted much of his time to Diary of a Wimpy Kid over Poptropica for much of the game’s history, though it’s also no secret that he has shown in the past how to balance things out. I remember when I was a kid, Poptropica was practically producing islands every month. Enter Poptropica Worlds, a successor to the original game in the franchise’s effort to stay afloat with changing times, and you have a completely new story. Despite the game being around for quite some time now, as of this writing the only islands, both old and new, are Crisis Caverns and 24 Carrot. Crisis Caverns was the new island, and – what a surprise – fans complained about the lack of a storyline. With Flash, the engine the original game was built on, ending by 2020, it makes all the more sense for this transition to happen, but at the rate things are being produced for Worlds (there are over 50 islands in the original game, take that for what you will), you can see the problem. Now, imagine three new likely-not-very-good Wimpy Kid books also released by then, and a possible sequel adaptation of The Getaway freshly minted on DVD, and the future looks grim for Kinney’s empire.
Yet the solution to stop this “Diary of a Wimpy Fall” is easy, because Mitch Krpata already suggested the answer and possibly didn’t even know it, which I will also quote from the Poptropica Help Blog below:
The hosts ask if there are any Star Wars references in the Poptropica books, to which Mitch points to Galactic Hot Dogs, where Max Brallier “tries to write Star Wars for kids.” GHD is also owned by StoryArc Media, whose biggest mistake, he says, is probably letting Jeff Kinney keep the rights to Wimpy Kid, which is worth far more than the entire company now.
In case you don’t know, Poptropica is as of this writing affiliated under a company named StoryArc Media, which itself is affiliated under a company called Sandbox Networks. That company acquired the rights to StoryArc in 2015, which at the time was called the Family Education Network under Pearson PLC. But try to digest this next statement from the blog:
Jeff retained the rights to Wimpy Kid and became wealthy overnight, but continued his day job on Poptropica, which Mitch says is more than you’d expect for someone who’d built this empire. Poptropica and Wimpy Kid are both very important to him, but at this point, he’s finally much more focused on Wimpy Kid than Poptropica.
And then there’s this:
As far as numbers go, Mitch reports that there are well over 500 million avatars created, and over 100 million players. However, he also says the game is “definitely not as cool now as it was before.” If you go to a school now and ask, “who knows Poptropica?” you might get about a dozen or so hands raised. But at the peak of Poptropica’s popularity, in 2010, every kid would be raising their hand – it was, for that while, the biggest site in the world for kids.
But wait, what about this?
However, he says, kids are fickle, and they will move on to the next thing. There have been so many competing games in the past ten years, so the Poptropica team used to worry about competing with Neopets, then Club Penguin, and now Animal Jam. Still, if you keep giving them something to come back to, they might stick around.
You don’t say.
It’s pretty clear what’s happening: Jeff Kinney is focusing too much on Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and not enough on Poptropica. And in doing so, he is oversaturating the Wimpy Kid brand to the point of exhaustion, and Poptropica isn’t getting enough of his love. Why make something of a reboot to the previous Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies that no one wanted and ultimately failed to deliver, when you could make a Poptropica movie???
Now, I would like to discuss other children’s book authors. Lincoln Peirce, writer of the Big Nate comic strip, was pretty intent on ending the books after the eighth book, even though it was the property’s adaptation into a Poptropica island that got the strip popular enough to become a book series in the first place. Mitch Krpata himself ended the fantastic Poptropica graphic novels (yes, Kinney didn’t write them, I know) after the fourth. Heck, even Beverly Clearly didn’t want Ramona Quimby to become a teenager, famously stating her fear of the teenage years in a 1995 interview: “I think writers need to know when to retire.” And note how I started seeing the decline in Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s quality at the 11th book, when Kinney started recycling book cover colors.
I’m not saying that Kinney should quit, though. What I am saying is that Kinney should take a break. I find it intriguing that after all these years he is still able to put these books out yearly exactly to the first Tuesday of November and keep them exactly at 224 pages, but now I’m questioning exactly how subconscious of a decision this has become on his part. Is this, among other things, the reasons for the sudden lack of a grasp to his storytelling?
But the best part about this whole situation is, is that unlike other authors who could end up in this predicament, Kinney doesn’t have to take a break from his career entirely. What makes him notably stand out from other children’s book authors is that he created another IP in the Poptropica franchise, which is literally crying out to him to come back! While working on Poptropica, Kinney can sort things out with himself on Diary of a Wimpy Kid. While on his break, he can try to figure out what is going on with the decline in quality and try to fix it, so that when he does go back to Diary of a Wimpy Kid when the time is right, he becomes the Jeff Kinney that we all know and love again, and in doing so, both Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Poptropica become great again.
I already have something of a solution, and I’m not alone on this: an animated Diary of a Wimpy Kid film in the style of The Peanuts Movie and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. Both films are not only highly enjoyable, but the differences between the animation style and the illustrations of the source material of both films allowed animations of the original illustrations to be implemented. This would allow this hypothetical Wimpy Kid film to still creatively use Kinney’s illustrations in the same way the live-action films did. As far as which books to adapt, retcon The Long Haul out of the continuity and adapt Cabin Fever (similarly to what was originally planned), continuing the tradition of skipping books in the series by combining elements from both that book and The Ugly Truth. Even better, if such a film becomes the first in a new trilogy and books continue to be “skipped”, in naming the films after the second book of the two, The Long Haul won’t have to be retold. A Hard Huck film would take elements from The Third Wheel, and an Old School film would take elements from The Long Haul, instead of the other way around.
I hope the works I’m developing become live-action films one day, and I understand the appeal, but sometimes you just have to know what’s right for an adaptation of your work, as Charles Schultz and Dav Pilkey did. Kinney initially wanted to be a cartoonist, and Greg is, at his heart, a cartoon character. Even Lincoln Peirce knows this for Nate Wright; during the time he commented on his own comic strip on GoComics.com, Pierce once stated that he did get offers for a Big Nate film adaptation, but didn’t accept them because so far, all of them have been live-action offers. Hence, why Nate Wright hasn’t graced our screens yet (which I am dying to see happen, by the way).
I don’t say any of this because the sudden decline in the quality of Kinney’s work has suddenly given me an undying urge to hate him. I say this out of my love for him. Jeff Kinney was a major influence on my decision to become a children’s book author, and I only wish the best for him. His relatability to the reality of our lives has impacted so many people, including myself, and I wish to see that continue for many years to come. And perhaps it’s because I’m dying to see a Poptropica movie (I’m even writing a script, which will be for another post), but Krpata did say this toward the end of that Poptropica Help Blog post:
He’s asked if there is a movie on the way, and replies with, “I hope so! We still have a dream to get an animated series on the way, so we’ll see what happens.”
Get it going, Kinney. 😉