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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The "Wimpy Kid" guy and me

Each year I visit the Main Street Middle School, a good school in Montpelier, Vt. where the sixth grade reads The Revealers, and it’s a well-planned highlight of my travels — but this year there was a twist. I'd stayed, the night before, with friends close to Montpelier, and in the morning we opened the daily paper to find, front-page news, that Jeff Kinney, author of the ginormous Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, had been in Montpelier the day before. Visiting ... the Main Street Middle School.

As my friend Jim laughed, I wondered aloud, “Should I even show up?”

Well, of course I did, and Kinney’s visit gave mine an interesting (“interesting” is a nice, neutral word, don’t you think?) sidelight. First, I learned from the kids that he had arrived in a bus. A bus, traveling-rock-star style and size, emblazoned across the side with the cover of his new book, The Long Haul (and, I expect, with other Wimpy Kid emblazonings). I pointed out the large classroom windows. “See that dirty red Subaru, parked out there? That’s my bus.”

I learned from the kids about Kinney’s creative process — that he first thinks up many many jokes, then builds a story around them. Which is different, especially because I can never really explain what my process is. (I carry around a notebook but never seem to take many notes. I’ve tried to map out a storyline, but am totally unable to do it. I do try to build, before starting the first draft, a reasonable sense of the main characters and of how the story will start, but beyond that I basically have little to no idea what will happen. Is that a process?)

What captivated the kids most about Kinney’s much briefer visit (he stayed an hour or so, then bussed on), was learning that things hadn't worked out for him just the way he’d planned. He wanted to be a comic-strip artist, but instead became the writer/illustrator of one of the bestselling middle-school series of all time; and what the kids remembered best was that his first ambition didn’t pan out. I wonder what that means, or what it says. I often share with middle schoolers that my first book was rejected 75 times, and never published; this often leads to the question, “Why didn’t you give up?” or “How did you keep going?” I say that I discovered something: publishers had the power to reject my books, but they didn’t have the power to make me quit. Only I had that power. I’m not sure what Jeff Kinney says.

But anyway. In the end I liked following the Wimpy Kid guy! It gave us an ongoing funny thread, no disrespect to Jeff Kinney, whom the kids liked a lot. I was able to start the day by sharing my sagging dismay on opening the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus; and it actually was interesting to compare our story-making processes. Everyone has a creative process, or everyone can: we are all equal in that we have ideas, and the opportunity to do something with them. Some of us have more ideas — the number of jokes that Kinney thinks up, before shaping a plot, turns out to be staggering. I have many fewer ideas. But, really, it only takes one to do something that makes a difference.

Also, I got a t-shirt. At the end of my visit, Montpelier teacher (and my pal) Mike Baginski presented me with a Main St. Middle School t-shirt. It's green. I asked, as everyone looked on, "Did Jeff Kinney get a t-shirt?" "No," I was told. I said, "All right!"

Kinney went on, that day, to cross the Green Mountains and visit the local school in Middlebury, Vermont. Which is where I live. So of course our local Addison Independent featured his visit too. With a photo of his bus. His bus.

I bet it’s incredibly hard to park.

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