Rachel Renée Russell Encourages Young People to Embrace Their Inner Dorks

Mention Dork Diaries to nearly any middle-school girl and you are likely to get an enthusiastic “Squee!” This wildly popular, award-winning series is composed of personal diary entries chronicling the life of 14-year-old Nikki Maxwell—the good, the bad, and the dorky.

The series began in 2009 with the publishing of Dork Diaries: Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life (Aladdin) and quickly skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Now, with the 10th book due to hit shelves this month, Dork Diaries is a world-wide phenomenon with 20 million books in print in 34 languages.

Surprisingly, the primary author, Rachel Renée Russell, was not a well-known author prior to Dork Diaries. In fact, she is a former attorney turned children’s author; but that has not stopped her from sharing tales from her own middle-school years as well as those of her daughters, Erin and Nikki. Here the three of them candidly share their experiences, views, and plans with Mackin readers.

Rachel, do you remember your first reading and writing experiences? Were you an avid book lover from the beginning? What did your parents and educators do to encourage you in your literacy journey?

Rachel: I have always loved both reading and writing. When I was a child, my parents supported my literacy journey by reading to me, encouraging me to read, and by providing lots of books at home. I still have fond memories of being in elementary school and excitedly spending an hour just reading over the book order forms that came attached to our Weekly Readers newspapers and deciding which books I wanted most. I would often order a dozen or more paperbacks and, surprisingly, my parents never complained about paying for my large order. Then, a few weeks later, the new books would be delivered by the school office staff in two small boxes—one box for me and one box for the rest of the class! I loved books!

Did you always plan to be an author? Did you or your daughters ever have or pursue other career aspirations?

Rachel: We all pursued different careers that ultimately led us back to writing and illustrating. When I was in elementary school, I dreamt of being an author and would write and illustrate picture books using construction paper and markers as gifts for family and friends. In college, I took a writing course with a professor who had published a successful children’s book, but he strongly advised me to select a different career since he felt I didn’t have the necessary skills to become an author. At that point, I changed my career aspirations, and decided to go to law school. I later opened a private practice specializing in consumer bankruptcy law. But, when my daughters went off to college and I had extra time on my hands, I joined an online writers group and started working on a children’s manuscript just as an enjoyable hobby.

Erin in Middle School

Erin in Middle School

Nikki in Middle School

Nikki in Middle School

My daughters, Erin and Nikki, both loved drawing so much that they attended art camp at Kendall College of Art and Design during the summers for 10 years during their childhood. They also collected manga and anime. Nikki’s hobby was drawing and she’d spend hours with her sketchbook. However, she earned a degree in elementary education and became a third-grade teacher.

Erin, my older daughter, majored in English and received a national award for a comic strip series she wrote and illustrated for her school newspaper at the University of Michigan. Then, after college, she briefly pursued her dream of launching a nationally syndicated comic strip, but newspaper subscriptions were declining so it was a more difficult goal to achieve than ever. She eventually ended up in the mortgage banking industry.

So, in spite of our careers, the three of us were lucky enough to be able to finally pursue our first love, creative writing and illustrating.

With careers in different fields and locations, how did your working relationship begin? And how do you decide who does what?

Nikki: Due to the popularity of the series, my mom went from a schedule of one book a year to two books a year which was very grueling. So she asked if I was interested in helping her with illustrations, and I quickly jumped at the opportunity. I knew it would be fun and I loved drawing so much that I did it in my spare time as a hobby. As more books were published and my mom’s writing demands increased, I put my teaching career on hold and took over the illustration duties for Dork Diaries on a full-time basis. As an illustrator, I can vividly retell my own stories of being bullied and teased through my artwork. Today, my middle-school challenges serve as an inspiration for my work on Dork Diaries.

Pencil sketches by Nikki

Erin: My mom asked me if I wanted to help with writing Dork Diaries on the fourth book in the series. I was happy to assist because the timing was perfect. I was looking to relocate to Virginia and I had always enjoyed collaborating with my mom back when I was working on my comic strips. Soon I was a full-time contributing writer for the Dork Diaries books and living just a few miles from my family. I had the best job ever! I was able to take my trials and tribulations from middle school and turn them into triumphant stories to share with readers all over the world.

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Calendar of events for Dork Diaries #6

Rachel: Writing and illustrating a Dork Diaries book is a fluid process that can take five to six months to complete. Even though both Erin and Nikki are talented writers and illustrators, they initially only focus on one area of the series. Erin has a wicked sense of humor and enjoys writing, so as my co-author, I have her concentrate on providing content. Nikki is very artistic and enjoys drawing, so as my illustrator, I have her focus on the artwork in the book.

The first step when starting a new book is to determine the main storyline and underlying subplots. Once I’ve established the pivotal scenes and written an outline, I brainstorm with Erin on the story. I usually write a few pages and then go back and decide what the art is going to be. Next, I provide art instruction to Nikki for the illustrations in the book and I assign vignettes to Erin who begins her writing process. While I’m writing, Erin and Nikki work simultaneously on their assigned tasks and then turn them in for me to edit and approve. Due to the illustrated format of my books, I may delete or rewrite a scene multiple times if it does not inspire funny artwork. The above steps are repeated over and over until the initial draft of the book is written.
This process works well for us since we are all leveraging our skills and doing the things we enjoy most. Once the book is written and illustrated, I continue to make tweaks to the manuscript and artwork until I am confident that we’ve created a book that our fans will love.

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Nikki, Rachel and Erin

Rumor has it that the storylines, characters, and general ideas came from the middle-school experiences of all three of you. So did at least one of you attend a private school where you felt out of place? Is there really a dad who was/is an exterminator?

Erin: As much as I would’ve loved getting driven to school in a van with a six-foot cockroach on top of it, our dad isn’t really an exterminator. LOL! However, it IS true that some of the characters in the book are based on real people. Our most infamous character, MacKenzie, is based on a real mean girl who bullied me from elementary school, all the way to high school! Nikki and I also did attend a private school at one point. And, we often felt out of place and were teased for being dorky and shy. But once we embraced the fact that we were different from most of the other students (which, by the way was a good thing) we started to appreciate our uniqueness and all of our peculiarities. We were, and still are, Dorks and we’re proud of it!

In your official opinions, what is a Dork?

Nikki: We define a Dork as a person who doesn’t fit in with or aspire to be like the most popular kids. A Dork tends to be independent in their thinking, tastes, and clothing styles and often marches to the beat of a different drum. When my mom coined the term, “Always remember to let your inner Dork shine through” she wanted kids to embrace the word “Dork” and define it as a positive word that signifies uniqueness, intelligence, empowerment, and confidence. Dorks are cool, smart, friendly, super talented, and make the best friends ever. So, when you let your inner Dork shine thorough, you are embracing all of those positive characteristics and being your true self!

Practically with the release of the first Dork Diaries book, young Nikki Maxwell became an international sensation. Since then, the Dork Diaries books have not failed to maintain top billing on the bestsellers lists and have secured award after award. What is it about your books that make them so popular?

Rachel: I think Dork Diaries is a huge success because young readers can relate to Nikki Maxwell and the other characters in the series. The day-to-day challenges Nikki encounters in middle school, and with her family and friends, resonate with my readers across the globe. At some point we can all probably recall an awkward period in our lives when we just didn’t fit in, we had our first crush, or we felt insecure.

The series is also very popular with parents and educators alike because it is very engaging and can serve as a great introduction to reading chapter books and novels. I often receive letters from adults thanking me for writing Dork Diaries because it introduced their reluctant reader to literature and turned their student or child into an avid reader. With each book in the series, I make sure there’s lots of drama and humor to keep fans entertained, laughing, and wanting to read more.

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Interior spread from Dork Diaries 9: Tales From a Not-So-Dorky Drama Queen

Recently Dork Diaries 9 was released and Dork Diaries 10 comes out this month. How many Dork Diaries books will there be? Will Nikki Maxwell be a middle schooler into perpetuity or will you age her? What can readers look forward to in the near future?

Rachel: For now, I just keep writing the books, my publisher keeps publishing them, and fans keep reading them! Sometimes I think about what Nikki Maxwell would be like in high school, college, and even as a young adult, but I don’t think my fans are ready to see her grow up just yet. With all of the drama my daughters and I experienced in middle school and high school, we certainly have enough material to keep Nikki Maxwell alive and her world thriving for many more years to come.

Dork Diaries has a huge following on Facebook and Twitter and a very active community of followers on the Dork Diaries website. How does “Nikki Maxwell” find the time to keep up with her diaries as well as a blog/online diary, an advice column on the website, and social media?

Rachel: I am very proud of our Facebook, Twitter, and Dork Diaries website following since we’ve gained our loyal fan base the old-fashioned way, mostly by word of mouth. I do receive lots of letters and email (domestic and international) and I even receive mail from entire classrooms and schools. Sometimes there’s a delay in my response to fan mail due to my writing schedule, but I do try to respond to each and every letter as soon as I possibly can.

When it comes to website updates and blog posts, Nikki handles the illustrations and Erin and I are responsible for the blog posts. I also read and moderate all fan comments before they are posted to the site, which can be quite time consuming. Since keeping my website content updated can easily turn into a full-time job, I also utilize my publisher and web designers for the technical and design work as needed.

My dream is to create a website that tweens can go to that is positive, fun, exciting, informative, and safe. Having interactive sections, like the advice columns, keeps the website current and allows kids to see that there are many other individuals out there who have some of the same experiences, interests, and challenges as they do. My website also allows children to interact with other children from different cultures around the world. And, it provides a forum where kids can show their creativity and talent by writing fan stories and posting original artwork that will be read and/or viewed by possibly millions of other children from around the world.

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From the “Ask Nikki” blog on DorkDiaries.com

In addition to your work on social media and the website, what projects are each of you working on individually and collaboratively? Will there be books or a series not related to Dork Diaries?

Rachel: The year 2016 will be a monumental one for Team Dork! In April, I will be launching a new series called The Misadventures of Max Crumbly. I’m really excited about this series because kids will have a new hero to root for and laugh with, as Max navigates the pitfalls of middle school and the secrets that literally hide behind a NOT-so-ordinary locker. Dork Diaries fans will be the first to see Max since he’ll be introduced in Dork Diaries Book 10: Tales from a Not-So-Perfect Pet Sitter (Aladdin, October 2015). And Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment, the film studio behind such great book-to-movie adaptations as the Twilight Saga, the Hunger Games trilogy, and the Divergent series, is developing the Dork Diaries movie as we speak! I hope to have more official news soon. Stay tuned! Of course, I will continue to collaborate on the Dork Diaries series with my daughters. Erin and Nikki are especially excited about 2016 because they’ll each start working on their very own children’s book project.

Earlier this year Rachel, you won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for children. Congratulations!

Rachel: I feel blessed and humbled when I receive any type of award for my work. Each honor inspires me to keep writing and is validation that I am positively impacting my readers. The NAACP Image Award, however, will always stand out because it was given by an organization that truly understands the struggles of African Americans in the fields of motion picture, television, music, and literature, and seeks to increase racial diversity in those fields. I am a cheerleader for diversity in literature, be it a character, author, or publisher. So, receiving this award was validation that my efforts have not gone unnoticed. Writing Dork Diaries is a dream come true! And, sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m awake and all of this is actually happening to me!

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Rachel receiving the 2015 NAACP Image Award

Why is diversity in literature so important in general and to you personally? What was the impetus for your very generous donation last fall to the We Need Diverse Books campaign?

Rachel: Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that almost half of American children under the age of five are people of color. We need to make a concerted effort to ensure that the books they’ll be reading are a reflection of the world around them. These books must contain characters as diverse as the children reading them. The We Need Diverse Books campaign advocates for changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.

When I’m writing, I want my readers to see themselves in my books and identify with the characters by way of experiences, race, gender, ethnicities, culture, and/or religion. For example, Nikki Maxwell is Caucasian, Zoeysha Ebony Franklin is African American, Chloe Christina Garcia is Latina, Jenny Chen and Lisa Wang are Asian, Sarah Grossman is Jewish, and Violet Baker is an individual who uses a wheelchair. And, these are not even all of my diverse characters. I really feel compelled to be a catalyst for change by doing more and saying more because our children deserve it.

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