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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Dozens of Sonoma County children whose homes burned down in the October wildfires gathered in a Petaluma event space Saturday afternoon to hear cartoonist Jeff Kinney, author of the megahit “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book series, share his personal story and teach them a little bit about his craft.

Kinney had a rapt audience at the Della Fattoria cafe as he told nearly 70 young students from Mark West Union School District about his journey creating the hugely successful book series, now also the basis for a series of films. He also demonstrated how he cartoons the series’ characters using a tablet and invited them to do the same, at times with a blindfold.

“As we’ve been going around the country, we try to do school visits with kids who are underserved,” Kinney said in an interview. “But here, of course, the circumstances were really different and unique. ... We know these kids have experienced a lot of loss, so we wanted to do something special.”

After the presentation, Kinney gave everyone in attendance a free copy of his latest “Wimpy Kid” book, called “The Getaway,” which is the 12th installment in the series, before signing them and posing for photographs. He also gave all the kids $100 gift cards to Copperfield’s Books.

Kinney had long planned a book tour stop at the Copperfield’s in Petaluma — where he hosted a public signing later Saturday afternoon — but the devastating firestorm made him realize he needed to do more, he said.

Kinney told the children about his connection to Sonoma County cartoonist Brian Fies, a friend who works with the same publisher. Fies — whose wife, Karen, is the director of the county’s Human Services department — recently published a widely shared comic online about losing his own Mark West home in the Tubbs fire.

That comic helped convey to Kinney the gravity of the loss experienced by Sonoma County fire victims, he told the children, many of whom said they lived in Fies’ neighborhood.

Tessie Wilson, one of the students who attended the event, said afterward she appreciated learning about Fies’ background. Wilson, 11, is an aspiring author herself.

“It was really cool just to have him talk about how he wrote the books and how the books came to be,” she said.

A student at John B. Riebli Elementary school, Wilson is now attending fifth-grade classes at San Miguel Elementary until her school is deemed safe enough for students to return following the fire that swept through the area.

Tessie’s mother is the office manager at Cloverleaf Ranch, where they were living the night the fires broke out. The 160-acre ranch and summer camp was hit head-on by the Tubbs fire, destroying several homes, the barns, the camp kitchen and other amenities.

At the book event, Tessie Wilson wore a Cloverleaf shirt — the same one she threw on the night she and her mother evacuated from their now-destroyed home.

“It’s definitely pretty overwhelming to realize everything’s pretty much gone that I owned,” Wilson said. “I’m looking forward to the future and being able to restock and have those memories in my mind — not those items.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com.

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