The soft-spoken adult behind the tween-centric ‘Dork Diaries’

The New York TimesMarch 27, 2013 

DORK DIARIES AUTHOR

Rachel Renee Russell, center, with her daughters Erin, left, and Nikki, in Chantilly, Va., March 6, 2013. Russell is the other of the "Dork Diaries" series for tweens following the socially aspiring, fashion-impaired Westchester Country Day School student Nikki Maxwell.

CHRISTOPHER GREGORY — NYT

— If you are one of those people whose lives do not include a girl under the age of 12 – and in that case, OMG I am SO SORRY for you!!! – then the “Dork Diaries,” a series for tweens that has sold more than 10 million copies in less than four years, might have escaped your notice.

Time to get a CLUE!!!!!

The “Dork Diaries” are the journals of the socially aspiring, fashion-impaired Westchester Country Day School student Nikki Maxwell. Each volume chronicles one month of the major crises in Nikki’s eighth-grade life, like a lack of invitations to cool parties, her crush on Brandon and her tangles with school snob MacKenzie Hollister – or as Nikki calls her, that “KILLER SHARK” in “sparkly nail polish.” Nikki lays it all out with humor, lots of embedded illustrations and plenty of CAPITALIZATION and exclamation points!!!!!

Channeling Nikki is the job of her creator, Rachel Renee Russell, a 54-year-old divorced former bankruptcy lawyer. The soft-spoken Russell insists that she is able to build a character that young readers relate to because for many years she too was a dork.

“I never had a date through high school, and my father had to pay a family friend $50 and loan him the Cadillac to get me a date for the prom,” she said with a laugh.

Yet standing in the marble foyer of the 12,000-square-foot home she recently built here in northern Virginia, about an hour outside of Washington, Russell strikes a visitor more as a savvy entrepreneur than as anyone’s foil.

Russell’s books – her next one comes out in June – have drawn comparisons to the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series that swept the world of tween boys, beginning online in 2004 and in print in 2007. Liesa Abrams, who acquired the “Dork” books for Simon & Schuster, said that the “Wimpy Kid” phenomenon helped only in that “the market already understood the format of text and art.” Otherwise, she said, Russell’s talent and humor made her a natural in her own right.

Russell has said that the “Wimpy Kid” books did not influence her choice of subject matter. She had been thinking about the concept for years, she said, inspired by such disparate journal formats as Anne Frank’s heartbreaking reflections from the “secret annex” and the comic antics of “The Princess Diaries.”

Her first book in the “Dork” series, “Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life,” released in 2009, was also her first published book, period. But she had the populist touch from the start. Nikki is a kind of Everygirl – pretty and talented but always worried that she is not. The comic-style black-and-white drawings that run throughout the books – first drawn by Russell and now by her actual daughter Nikki, 27 – were inspired partly by Disney characters and partly by Japanese manga and have a ready-made mainstream accessibility.

Russell, an African-American, has also chosen to make Nikki white.

She said she was following the lead of the screenwriter Shonda Rhimes, who created “Grey’s Anatomy” and its spinoff, “Private Practice,” and who has said that black writers should not be typecast into having only black characters.

Also, there was the economics of the situation.

“If you have a character of a different race, your book tends to get put in a category that isn’t mainstream, and we wanted something to appeal to everyone,” Russell said.

Still, her decision has made her something of a conundrum to those in the book world who want to promote multicultural writers and stories with themes particular to those groups. Kyle Zimmer, the founder of First Book, a nonprofit organization that advocates more diversity in children’s books, said the “Dork Diaries” did not quite fit the bill.

“When some people are talking about diversity, they want a protagonist and themes from a variety of cultural backgrounds,” Zimmer said. While First Book is eager to promote either authors or main characters from a diverse range of cultures, Zimmer worries that there is a perception that books with minority characters don’t sell well, which discourages writers from taking on diverse viewpoints.

But Russell said that she saw Nikki as an “Everygirl, all hues mixed together,” and that the struggle to fit in during middle school was universal. She pointed out that Nikki’s best friends were African-American and Latino, although the black-and-white drawings and the complete lack of emphasis on race as a subject make their racial or cultural identity hard to discern.

The book is based on the misadventures of Russell’s own girls. Erin, her other daughter, she said, was tormented by a real-life mean girl, who once popped all the balloons that friends had used to decorate Erin’s locker for her birthday. And just as Nikki Maxwell is tripped while carrying her tray in the cafeteria in “Tales From a Not-So-Popular Party Girl,” Erin was similarly tripped by a wrestler. (Erin, 29, also works for her mother, helping imagine situations and writing parts of the books.)

Russell grew up in St. Joseph, Mich., about 100 miles northeast of Chicago, and said the books were also partly based on her own experiences, yet she describes a childhood that sounds decidedly undorky. She played keyboards in an all-girl band and was president of her high school class. She even came an hour short of earning her pilot’s license at 15, but her instructor crashed the plane when she wasn’t in it.

Her real ambition, even then, was to be an author.

The books caught on immediately, which has been reflected in Russell’s compensation. She said she received a five-figure advance for the first two books, six figures for the second two, and nearly 10 times as much for her two most recent books, including the next one, “Tales From a Not-So-Happy Heartbreaker.”

She is also under contract for Nos. 7 and 8.

Asked if she was running out of dorky incidents to share with her readers, Russell responded with an emphatic no.

“I will do it forever if I can,” she said.

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