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Never mind Twilight heartthrob Taylor Lautner. Forget Disney Channel teen queen Selena Gomez. At Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards in March, some of the most fervent fan worship was reserved for Jeff Kinney, an unassuming father of two who drives a Toyota Prius and admits he has a weakness for "dad jeans." And yet there he was on the orange carpet, "next to Selena and Taylor, and I had this moment where I thought, 'I do not belong here,'" recalls Kinney. "'No one needs a 39-year-old guy in this lineup.'"

But for legions of young readers, Kinney is the ultimate A-lister. The author of the wildly successful kids' Diary of a Wimpy Kid books-which have ridden the bestseller list since they were first released three years ago, together selling a whopping 30 million copies-Kinney still can't wrap his head around the Wimpy phenomenon. "It's surreal," he says. With a film version of Diary racking up $60 million this spring and a fifth book in the series due in the fall, "it feels like make-believe to me," says Kinney, who lives in rural Plainville, Mass., with his wife, Julie, 41, and their sons Will, 7, and Grant, 4. "I didn't even think these books had a reasonable chance to be published because they're so strange."

Kinney's Kid is indeed an unlikely star: middle schooler Greg Heffley, an often whiny, self-absorbed, and yes, wimpy kid. But wimpy or not, most kids can relate. "To me, the definition of a wimp is somebody who feels powerless," says Kinney. "Everyone in fifth or sixth grade knows what it feels like to be powerless in the world."

A self-described "average kid with some moments of extreme wimpiness," Kinney was one of four children raised in Fort Washington, Md., by a college teacher mom and a military analyst dad. "I drew a lot as a kid," he says. "I didn't take any art lessons, which is probably why I ended up writing and drawing as a seventh grader. It's sort of where I max out at my talents."

After producing a comic strip in college about an immature freshman, Kinney worked various jobs while steadily developing Wimpy Kid. "When we were dating," recalls journalist wife Julie, "and our friends would get together, Jeff always wanted to hear funny things about their childhoods. That's what he's interested in."

He had envisioned Kid as a nostalgia book for adults until an editor suggested he gear it toward children. Heavy on humor and his signature line drawings, the series has appealed to even reluctant readers. "I keep hearing from parents-especially parents of kids with Asperger's or dyslexia-who say these books were the breakthrough," says Kinney. "It's very moving when parents come to me with tears in their eyes."

Still, some parents and educators have criticized the books for glorifying Greg's less-than-model attitude. ("I'll be famous one day," Greg writes, "but for now I'm stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons.") Kinney shrugs off the naysayers. "Anytime something becomes popular amongst kids, it causes parents to pull back," he says. "I think my books are harmless."

Kinney's two biggest fans are his boys. Older son Will "is compulsively creative-he might draw 20 or 30 pictures a day," says Kinney. His little brother Grant's life "revolves around sports," with Kinney helping coach his soccer team. Diary's success allowed the family to buy a new 2,500-sq.-ft. house with a pool, but "we drive the same cars we used to," says Kinney, who commutes to Boston for his 9 to 5 job as the founder of Poptropica.com, a virtual world site. He writes "between 10 p.m. and 2 in the morning every night" and admits that family time gets squeezed. "The biggest struggle is that this endeavor takes me away from my family," he says. He anticipates Diary's eventual fall from the bestseller list. "I've seen enough episodes of Behind the Music to know things turn dark and stormy," he says. "Hopefully I can handle it. I couldn't imagine what could possibly happen to top this."

  • Contributors:
  • Anne Driscoll/Plainville.