PARIS — The Wimpy Kid has finally done good -- and his creator Jeff Kinney has even got a medal from France to prove it.
The American creator of the bestseller Diary of a Wimpy Kid books was made an officer of France's Order of Arts and Letters on Monday, an honour also conferred on Nobel laureates T. S. Eliot and Seamus Heaney as well as music megastars such as Bono and David Bowie.
As the medal was pinned to his chest, Kinney, 48, said he never expected his stories to become such a cult children's hit, selling more than 200 million copies worldwide and spawning four movies.
In fact, the cartoonist said that the misadventures of 12-year-old weakling Greg Heffley was initially aimed at adults nostalgic for their middle-school years.
But the geeky loser was quickly adopted as a hilarious anti-hero by a generation of children and teenagers.
"I always wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist," Kinney confessed. "But I didn't have the artistic talent."
His eureka moment came "one day when I realised if I drew at my talent level, which was at the level of an 11- or 12-year-old boy," it might work.
"The biggest surprise to me is being published at all, because the format was so unusual I didn't think it would be published.
"I fully expected Diary of a Wimpy Kid would be rejected. So I think it's crazy it's in 64 languages now and I'm thrilled that it's translated into French," he told reporters.
Three million copies of the books have been sold in France alone.
"I think this is really incredible. I grew up in Maryland and I studied French when I was in 7th grade and I never could have imagined coming here and being honoured in this way," Kinney added.
The father-of-two said he is convinced that children are much more rounded than they were when he was growing up.
"I think that kids self-identify with being a nerd or a wimp in a way that they didn't when I was growing up.
"I think that kids are much more comfortable in their own skin these days, and that's a really good thing," he added.
Kinney, who has become an advocate for limiting screen time for children, has opened a community bookshop called An Unlikely Story in his adopted hometown of Plainville, Massachusetts, where he also has his studio.
"I feel a huge responsibility to encourage literacy," he said.
"The more people read, the higher their quality of life," he argued, saying that he was shocked to discover that many children in the US have no books in their homes.
But Kinney, who is also a game designer and is now working on an animated series of the books, admitted that he has his work cut out for him -- especially with boys.
He said he struggles to get his own children off the video game Fortnite.
"We are victorious if they spend less than five hours a day on screens at the weekend," he told the BBC. — AFP