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For the original wimpy kid, a return to his ‘special place’

Children’s author Jeff Kinney is a favorite among Newburyport’s younger readers; he and they look forward to book festival

Nancy Smith read “Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ to Sydney Clausen and Tessa and Thea Manderson recently at the Newburyport Public Library. Nancy Smith read “Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ to Sydney Clausen and Tessa and Thea Manderson recently at the Newburyport Public Library. (WINSLOW TOWNSON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / April 22, 2012
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Jeff Kinney worked in Newburyport for a year in the mid-1990s, coming away with a fondness for the Grog and the library and the hot dog cart, a dislike for snowy commutes up Interstate 95 from Boston, and memories of trying to track down the ghost at the Garrison Inn.

“Newburyport really has a special place in my heart,’’ said the author of the huge kid-lit hit “Diary of a Wimpy Kid’’ and its sequels.

Kinney, 41, is about to learn that he has a special place in the town’s heart, too, at least the hearts of its young readers.

Organizers say his talk and book-signing at 1 p.m. Saturday at Immaculate Conception School will be one of the hits of the 2012 Newburyport Literary Festival. They expect the author to draw perhaps 800 children and parents to the school gym, lowering the average age of fest attendees substantially.

Lucia Greene, the festival’s cochairwoman for children’s and young adult books, said: “We hear kids everywhere talking about him, at school, on the sidewalks, in our parks. Why? Because he’s so funny, one little 5-year-old girl told us.

“Kinney’s a star because he makes them laugh,’’ Greene said in e-mail.

The event is titled “Comics, Diaries, and the Triumph of the Wimpy Kid,’’ so expect Kinney to talk about how his creation Greg Heffley may or may not resemble the young Kinney and how the tale evolved. Perhaps he will also be enticed to talk about the seventh book in the series, due this fall. He said he is not allowed to reveal the title yet, but that it is connected to Valentine’s Day.

“What’s been fun for me in the books is to demonstrate how little Greg knows about girls,’’ Kinney said in a phone interview. “Greg realizes in this latest adventure that he has to understand the opposite sex to get a date, so I’m going to be exploring boy-girl dynamics.’’

Kinney first began sketching the Wimpy Kid in 1998. The combination of words and cartoons went online at the Funbrain.com site in 2004, and the first book debuted in 2007. Young readers immediately took to this unassuming everykid, whose mildly comic adventures involve no vampires or magic wands.

“I think what I was trying to write about was an ordinary childhood,’’ said Kinney, a Maryland native. “I feel like the gift my parents gave me was a really secure, typical American childhood, and I’m drawing from that in some ways. My books are fiction, but definitely grounded in real truth and real life, and what’s exciting to me is, kids have embraced that.’’

Kinney worked as a graphic designer at the Newburyport Daily News from 1995 to 1996, and “I always say to people that if I could live anywhere on earth, it would be Newburyport.’’

Of course, he probably could live anywhere, with what is, by his count, 75 million copies of the six “Wimpy Kid’’ books sold around the world, not to mention two movies and a third on the way and maybe an animated television special.

Kinney lives in Plainville, near the Rhode Island border, so his wife Julie and their sons, ages 6 and 9, can be near family.

He does not seem to have let success go to his head. The family still leads a very normal life in their suburban cul de sac, he says, and he is a Cub Scout scoutmaster. He has even kept his day job, overseeing Poptropica.com, a website for children he created before life got “wimpy,’’ although he works from home four days a week.

There can be surreal moments in his role as a hugely successful children’s author, he admits, for example, lunch with George W. Bush and his parents a few months ago, followed by an invitation from Michelle Obama to the White House Easter egg roll.

“A week ago was the five-year anniversary of my first book coming out, and it hit the bestseller list three weeks after that,’’ he said. “It just feels like this long continuous ride, and it just gets stranger and stranger.’’

Although he spent such a short time here, Newburyport really had an effect on Kinney. That is where he picked up the name of Greg’s friend Rowley. And while his job mostly involved laying out pages, he took a stab at working as a reporter, writing a feature on the ghost at the Garrison Inn.

“Coming from Maryland, where people don’t really talk about ghosts that often, it was so strange to me that everybody just treated this as a normal thing, so I decided to do an article on it and try my hand at reporting,’’ he said.

He visited the inn and learned about the ghost named Sarah and her habit of strewing pennies around. And when he got back to Boston that night, he was told there had been a mysterious appearance of pennies on the floor at his home at the same time as the interview. “A strange situation,’’ he said.

While here, Kinney even tried to sell the Daily News on a different comic strip he had been working on.

“I presented a package to the editor, and he respectfully declined, but that’s OK,’’ Kinney said. “They were running only or mostly syndicated strips at the time, and I’m sure they thought it was a little risky.’’

The editor in question, Cal Killeen, now works in New Jersey and remembers Kinney. “He was a good guy, a good kid, a hard worker,’’ Killeen says.

And what about the idea that the Daily News passed on Kinney’s soon-to-be-very-valuable cartooning talent? Killeen laughed out loud. “That’s possible; I don’t remember that, but that’s certainly possible.’’

Kinney’s appearance Saturday at Immaculate Conception School, 1 Washington St., is free and open to all, but there are a few rules: “All books purchased at the event’s official booksellers will be signed by Jeff, along with one book brought from home. Because of the expected size of the crowd, Jeff will be signing his name only; he will not be personalizing. Children must be accompanied by an adult.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

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