How 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' author Jeff Kinney became the king of COVID-19 book tours

Hannah Yasharoff, USA TODAY
·6 min read

Silver Spring, Md. — Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” is blaring on everyone's car radio. It’s 40-some degrees, but water balloons are being tossed, and a lifeguard is blowing her whistle at guests. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” author Jeff Kinney is on standby with a 7-foot pool net.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted an unusual ask of the book industry: how do you go on tour to promote your work when meeting groups isn’t safe? Some big-name authors, like Barack Obama, whose presidential memoir, "A Promised Land," came out a month ago, stuck just to giving interviews. Others have done Zoom events on their own, partnering with other authors or with local bookstores.

But Kinney, author of the bestselling kids book series “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” engineered a socially distant but fun and interactive tour like no other for his young readers: a pool party-themed drive-through meet and greet that lifts his stories off the pages.

“It's important to have that feeling of connection,” Kinney tells USA TODAY. “Like most writers, I write in a vacuum. I write in isolation ... so it feels really strange to write something and put it out into the world and then to not meet the people who are reading it.”

Families attend a drive-through pool party event to promote Jeff Kinney's latest kids book, "Diary of A Wimpy Kid: The Deep End" on Oct. 26. in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Families attend a drive-through pool party event to promote Jeff Kinney's latest kids book, "Diary of A Wimpy Kid: The Deep End" on Oct. 26. in Silver Spring, Maryland.

And a whole lot of people are reading.

Since the first “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book debuted in 2007, the series has sold more than 250 million copies world-wide and been translated into 65 languages. It’s one of the top bestselling book series, according to the USA TODAY Best-selling Books list, near other fan favorites like "Harry Potter" and "The Hunger Games."

In an announcement exclusive to USA TODAY, Kinney is sharing the title and cover of the third book in his “Wimpy Kid” spinoff series: “Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Spooky Stories,” which will debut March 16, 2021, before the 16th “Wimpy Kid” book arrives later that fall.

"Rowley Jefferson's Awesome Friendly Spooky Stories" is hitting bookshelves March 16, 2021, USA TODAY exclusively announces.
"Rowley Jefferson's Awesome Friendly Spooky Stories" is hitting bookshelves March 16, 2021, USA TODAY exclusively announces.

Kinney’s claim to fame is “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” starring Greg Heffley, a snarky antihero who’s been stuck trying to navigate middle school for the past 13 years. (Hey, we’d probably be pretty grumpy after that long in junior high, too.)

But he has the “Rowley Jefferson” spinoff, starring Greg's happy-go-lucky best friend, to thank for his COVID-era book tour success.

Over the summer, Kinney and his publishing team were trying to figure out how to safely promote the second “Rowley Jefferson” book, which had already been pushed from April to August due to COVID-19. Livestream events seemed like a no-go — his core audience of kids roughly 8 to 12 years old was already getting an overload of Zoom time through school.

The solution: Kinney would travel around in a van and dole out books to kids via a 7-foot golden trident that young readers could connect to the new book’s storyline and associate with the cover’s bright orange and yellow color scheme. It was a socially distant way to still let kids meet the man who created their favorite characters during a time that doesn’t allow for much in-person interaction.

“I wanted to do something physical,” Kinney said. “I was really surprised by how well-received it was, even though it was literally me just handing kids a book with the trident, and I was really surprised by how grateful parents were and how happy kids were to have something to do that wasn't canceled.”

By the time his next release rolled around a few months later, they went bigger. The 15th “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book was titled “The Deep End,” so naturally it deserved a pool-party theme. Fall weather be darned, masked guests drove through an interactive experience with a ball-toss game, water gun squirts and a covered tent designed to mimic the look, sound and lighting of swimming under water, all to “maximize the fun you can have while still in a car,” as Kinney puts it.

He held on to the trident concept, swapping it out for a pool net that let him again hand off signed books from a distance.

Families attend a drive-through pool-party event promoting Jeff Kinney's latest kids book, "Diary of A Wimpy Kid: The Deep End" on Oct. 26. in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Families attend a drive-through pool-party event promoting Jeff Kinney's latest kids book, "Diary of A Wimpy Kid: The Deep End" on Oct. 26. in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The events were put on in October and November mostly in school or community center parking lots around the country to allow for larger areas to drive through — USA TODAY visited the second tour stop at Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland. But they still partnered with local bookstores, including Loyalty Bookstore in Maryland or Gibson's Bookstore in Concord, New Hampshire. As the owner of An Unlikely Story Bookstore and Cafe in Plainville, Massachusetts, Kinney understands how vital it is to have authors partner with independent bookstores to draw business, especially during a time when many are opting for the convenience of online shopping with bigger chains like Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

“So many independent bookstores are suffering right now,” Kinney says, adding he hoped the 19 "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" events would be able to “help with the bottom line a bit.”

Fans of the series still have a few months to wait until the “Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Spooky Stories” installment arrives. The good news: they have another drive-through tour to look forward to, one that his publisher, Abrams Books, dubs “hair-raisingly innovative.” Dates have not yet been announced.

Families attend a drive-thru pool party event to promote Jeff Kinney's latest kids book, "Diary of A Wimpy Kid: The Deep End" on Oct. 26. in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Families attend a drive-thru pool party event to promote Jeff Kinney's latest kids book, "Diary of A Wimpy Kid: The Deep End" on Oct. 26. in Silver Spring, Maryland.

On his last tour, Kinney enlisted the help of each local bookstore to help them find a “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” super fan to visit. Keeping the pool-party theme, they would drive up to the house in a "Diary of a Wimpy Kid"-branded van, set up water-balloon games, including a slingshot that could launch a water balloon “like a hundred yards” (admit it, your inner 10-year-old is dying to try that out).

Reading and writing may usually be solo activities, but Kinney ensured that staying isolated in 2020 didn't have to be lonely or boring.

"It's been nice to connect in a really personal way with a few kids each day, and I really look forward to those moments," Kinney says. "Sometimes they have special circumstances: they might have had somebody in the family who had COVID, or they might be struggling during quarantine and so that's always meaningful: to brighten someone's day who's living through extra challenges.

“It's a very fulfilling feeling,” he adds.

Families attend a drive-through pool party event to promote Jeff Kinney's latest kids book, "Diary of A Wimpy Kid: The Deep End" on Oct. 26. in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Families attend a drive-through pool party event to promote Jeff Kinney's latest kids book, "Diary of A Wimpy Kid: The Deep End" on Oct. 26. in Silver Spring, Maryland.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 book tours: 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' author Jeff Kinney is king