When last we saw him, Greg Heffley was making a mess of things during his summer vacation from middle school. This week, when The Ugly Truth hits bookstores, the protagonist of the wildly successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid series advances toward a whole new level of awkward trouble: puberty.
This is not just your hormone-raging, confusion-heavy, mood swings and drama and "Omigod, what's-happening-to-my-body?" puberty.
This is puberty as metaphor.
"I'm using it as a metaphor for whether or not these characters are cartoon characters or if they're literary characters," series author Jeff Kinney said in Vancouver recently. "I've had to make the decision of whether or not the kids should grow up."
The Diary books are not graphic novels in the traditional sense; they're more like hybrids of fiction and cartoons. Written in journal form, the text appears hand-printed on lined paper. The diarist is Greg, a wisecracking, weaselly but fundamentally loveable middle-schooler and video-game wiz who's pretty sharp, but doesn't apply himself at school. He has a simple and kind-hearted best friend, Rowley, and a mean older brother, Rodrick.
Debuting in 2007, the books have been bestsellers, with more than 32 million copies in print in the United States alone. They're sold in more than 30 countries, and this year spawned a hit Vancouver-shot movie, starring Zachary Gordon as Greg, Robert Capron as Rowley and Canadian Devon Bostick as big brother Rodrick. Rachael Harris ( The Hangover) and Steve Zahn ( Treme) play Greg's parents.
On the set of Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules, Kinney revealed a deep angst over where to take his series: Should it continue in the direction of a comic book, where the characters never grow up, à la Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang? Or should it go the direction of other successful young-adult series ( Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl) where the protagonist ages and matures, along with his readers?
"When I set out to write these books, I always had it in mind that the characters would grow up and that my readers would expect the story to have a neat, nice ending," Kinney said. "I always expected to wrap things up basically on the eve before high school and to never progress the characters beyond that point. But the more I've thought about it, I've really wondered if the DNA of the series lives more in the comics world where ... my readers might just enjoy reading about Greg year after year."
Kinney's made his decision, he says, but he's not allowed to tell before the book's release on Tuesday. "I'm not trying to be cagey or coy or precious here, but it's the whole gist of the book, so I can be a little bit guarded, right?" he said.
"Cagey" and "precious" are hardly words that come to mind when meeting Kinney, 39. Wearing a Grouse Grind sweatshirt and jeans, and apologizing for being off his game (he had a cold), the superstar author was the picture of middle America: a dad to two boys, 7 and 5, den father for his older son's Cub Scout troop and second assistant coach for his younger son's soccer team, who'd spent the past weekend at home in Plainville, Mass., watching football with one son and taking the other to a Lego festival.
He came to the Wimpy Kid idea basically through failure. "I was trying to be a newspaper cartoonist and I didn't have that professional touch, and I couldn't break into that business so I eventually realized I might have a shot if I wrote and drew as a middle-schooler [Grades 5 through 8] which is sort of where my artistic talents maxed out."
He then spent four years trying to remember everything that happened to him when he was in middle school - consulting yearbooks and his younger brother - and writing down 13,000 pages of jokes, which he then pared down to the best ones.
He draws heavily on his own middle-school experiences, such as dodging swim practice by telling the coach he had to go to the bathroom, then spending the entire time hiding out in a change room so cold (if he'd taken his towel, it would have alerted the coach to his scheme) that he wrapped himself in toilet paper.
"I remember thinking, is this actually worse than being in the pool right now?," he said. "But now I'm cashing in."
For how long, and in what form remains a mystery to be revealed at least partially in the pages of the upcoming fifth diary. But it doesn't sound as if Kinney is ready to give up journaling as Greg Heffley just yet.
"I worked all my adult life to get to be a cartoonist, which was my dream, and then to think that it might be over in 3 1/2 years is kind of shocking," he said. "I definitely don't want to go back to the well again and again. I want to know when it's time to give it up. I do think that these things have a life span. I'm definitely not in the business of milking cows as much as I can. I definitely feel that I've gotten what I was chasing after. So now I have to figure out what's right artistically and what my readers will enjoy."
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth goes on sale Tuesday.