Jeff Kinney Discusses the Books That Shaped His Childhood and Opened His Mind | SLJ Summit 2023

In his SLJ Summit keynote address, the best-selling "Wimpy Kid" author shared the memorable titles from his youth, as well as those that have opened his eyes to his privilege and the lives of those not like him.

Jeff Kinney took the stage to a long, loud round of appreciative applause at the SLJ Summit. In a room full of school librarians, the “Wimpy Kid” author held a special place. He has created the books that so many of their students clamor for; the books that made so many of those kids want to read. Sunday

Jeff Kinney during his keynote at the SLJ Summit. 
Photo credit: Becky Calzada

morning December 3 in Atlanta, the keynote was funny and self-deprecating, effusive in its praise for librarians and their work, and more than a little bit confessional.

Kinney, who has spotlighted librarians while on his current “Wimpy Kid” book tour, flew to Atlanta during a short break between stops in Europe and India to speak with the librarians and library leaders gathered for the Summit at the Loudermilk Conference Center.

The best-selling author shared a little about his literary life growing up and his enlightenment as an adult.

“I was fortunate to grow up in a house full of books and a family full of readers,” he said. “My mother was an early childhood educator, and I learned early on that a gold or silver sticker on the cover of a book was a sign of quality. So I loved beautiful, colorful picture books by Leo Leoni and Eric Carle, of course, but I was equally drawn to the books that kept me awake at night, like Where the Wild Things Are. I fell in love with poetry courtesy of Shel Silverstein. ... I devoured everything by Beverly Cleary, especially the “Ramona” series, and my sister was responsible for bringing the entire Judy Blume canon into our home.”

His favorite Judy Blume book was Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

“I'm not sure there would be a Greg Heffley if not for Peter Hatcher,” he said.


[READ: Jeff Kinney: Librarians Are the Beating Hearts of the Communities They Serve | SLJ Summit 2023]


Kinney credits his father with introducing him to comics courtesy of The Washington Post, as well as buying Kinney a “Bloom County” or “Farside” collection whenever a new one was published.

In fourth or fifth grade, he started to make his own reading choices and was drawn to fantasy— “Narnia,” “Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit,” and especially the “Xanth” series.

“If you put A Spell for Chameleon back in my hands today, I still feel the same spark of magic that I did as a fifth grader,” he said.

Despite his love of fiction, it was two nonfiction titles that set him on the course of his career—the programming manual for the Apple 2E and How to Draw and Sell Comic Strips by Alan McKenzie, which became his “roadmap to becoming a cartoonist.”

Kinney also spoke honestly about the authors and titles that opened his eyes to his privilege and broadened his horizons as an adult.

Somehow, while writing seven “Wimpy Kid” titles, he remained unaware of what else existed in children's publishing, he admitted. Then Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel, the seventh book of his series, was nominated for an award. Kinney sat at the ceremony listening to the summaries of other nominees, including Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

“That's when I realized that my contribution to children's literature was shaky at best,” he said with a laugh.


[READ: Watch: Jeff Kinney Keynote | SLJ Summit 2023]


Still, he had not yet grasped the breadth of authors and subject matter being tackled in books.

“My awareness of what was going on in the publishing world took a dramatic turn when I made the unlikely decision to become a bookstore owner,” he said.

Kinney and his wife bought a building that was once a general store in their Massachusetts town and turned it into a bookstore called An Unlikely Story.

“Every time I host an event, I read the author's book; and each time I do, I feel like I level up as a person,” he said. “I learned about the slave trade through the poetry of Kwame Alexander in The Door of No Return. I've learned what it's like to experience anxiety as a kid through the graphic novels of Raina Telgemeier. I've learned about what it was like to be in the eye of the civil rights storm from Ruby Bridges herself. I've learned what it was like running a motel as an 8-year-old Chinese immigrant from Kelly Yang. I learned what it's like to lose your son to crystal meth from the author of Beautiful Boy. And I've seen through the eyes of a nonbinary member of the Chinese diaspora from the fantasy writings of Xiran Jay Zhao. I even learned what it was like to be the Fonz from the man himself.”


[READ: Empowered in the Fight for Intellectual Freedom | SLJ Summit 2023]


After "leveling up" from the books, Kinney learned more asking people about their journey to becoming authors.

“So many of the authors I've interviewed became writers because when they were growing up, they didn't get a chance to see people who looked like them or grew up like them, positively represented in the pages of books,” he said.

That made Kinney reflect on the privilege he had as a young reader.

“When I read those books by Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, I was looking into a mirror,” he said. “I felt seen. Every child deserves to see their experiences reflected back to them. We’re better as a society when our books reflect the wonderfully diverse nation we're living in.”

He was embarrassed, he said, to admit that had he not opened An Unlikely Story, he might never have known those books existed, never mind read them.

“I might have stayed in my bubble,” he said. “My horizons wouldn't have been broadened in the same way. I wouldn't have benefited from being exposed to so many new ideas and points of view. I wouldn't have grown in the same way as a person. I think about that often. It honestly pains me to think of how much I might have missed out on, and how lucky I am to occupy the seat that our bookstore has afforded me.”


[READ: Making the Case For What You Do: How to Talk to Stakeholders | SLJ Summit 2023]


With this admission, he returned to the subject librarians, who he called heroes for doing the “sacred work” of putting books in kids’ hands. He thanked them and promised support.

“There’s nothing meaningful that I can say today to alleviate the serious issues you face,” he said. “What I can do is offer you my gratitude. Every author who’s ever put their ideas to a page owes you a debt for getting our books into readers’ hands, for passionately advocating for our work.

“So what can we as authors do for you? We can advocate for your work. We can stand in solidarity with you. We can defend your right to do your job. As writers, it’s our responsibility to use the platforms we have to uplift and defend you.”

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