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With ‘Wimpy’ books, he’s a master of kid lit. Now he wants students to tell their stories.

It’s not easy getting some kids to read, but Jeff Kinney was cheered like a rock star on Monday when the author of the best-selling “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book series paid a surprise visit to Hodge Road Elementary School.

The “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series has sold more than 200 million copies worldwide, motivating many students to put down their video games to read. Kinney, an author and cartoonist from Massachusetts, is using the popularity of the series to motivate his fans to read books of all kinds.

“Whenever you go to the library, pick out a book and say, ‘What do I want to be? What do I want to be good at?” Kinney told the more than 200 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students at Hodge Road. “I would look at your future when you look for your books.”

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” tells the story of Greg Heffley, who journals his life as a middle school student. His experiences are relatable to many of his young readers.

“He has nailed what it’s like to be a kid,” said Nikki Kovach, the media specialist at Hodge Road Elementary. “He’s nailed the kid humor.”

Kovach said the series is so popular among young readers that Kinney is as famous to students as author JK Rowling was during the height of the Harry Potter craze. Cries of “it’s Jeff Kinney” came from some students when he first entered the school.

Monday was Kinney’s first visit to a school in North Carolina. Previously, he was among 269 authors and illustrators of children’s books and young adult books who had signed a letter in 2016 opposing House Bill 2, which replaced local ordinances with a statewide nondiscrimination law that doesn’t include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories. The law was partially repealed and replaced in 2017.

Kinney, who is on a tour promoting the newest book in his series, said he came to Hodge Road because it’s an “under-served school.” Last school year, 77 percent of Hodge Road’s students qualified for federally subsidized lunches.

“It’s really rewarding to come to schools that might not ordinarily get authors,” Kinney said in an interview before his presentation. “It’s really important to show kids the journey of becoming an author.”

Students eagerly waited Monday to talk with Kinney. Christopher Warren, 10, a fifth-grade student who was chosen to greet Kinney, said he’s read all but the latest book in the series.

“I was pretty nervous,” Christopher said. “My whole dream was to meet him. I love his books.”

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Francisco Islas Gomez, 11, left, and Christopher Warren ,10, page through books from the “Diary of A Wimpy Kid” book series during a visit from author Jeff Kinney Monday, Nov. 5, 2018 at Hodge Road Elementary School in Knightdale. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Kinney encouraged the students to keep their own journals. He told them the inspiration for the series came from how he wrote about his own experiences as a kid.

“When I look at you guys, I think, ‘Wow, there are all these kids with all these funny stories,”’ Kinney said. “Imagine if you start writing down the funny and interesting and maybe challenging things that are happening to you in your life.

“You own your life story. Later on you can tell your story to maybe millions of readers, so think about that.”

After answering questions from students, Kinney drew several characters from series using an iPad, with the results displayed on a large screen.

Kinney invited students to come on stage as he gave them a quick lesson on drawing the characters. He added a bit of a challenge for Kendric Nixon, 8, a third-grade student, by having him finish a drawing of Greg without being able to look at the screen.

“It was like typing my first time,” said Kendric, who broke out laughing when he saw the result. “It was messed up.”

But Kendric enjoyed the experience so much that he plans to ask his mom to buy all 13 books in the series.

Kinney ended the visit by donating three complete sets of the series to the school’s library. Kovach, the school’s media specialist, said it will come in handy since she can’t keep the books in stock because they’re so popular with the students.

“I can’t keep them on the shelf,” Kovach said of the books. “They’ll stand there and the kid that has the book will check it in and the kid that wants it will grab it.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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