Who knew? Rachel Renée Russell has turned being a dork into something really cool for girls and boys going through an awkward stage in life.
Russell and her daughters, Erin and Nikki, are the authors and illustrators of the best-selling “Dork Diaries” series, which chronicles the fashion-impaired and unpopular Westchester Country Day School student Nikki Maxwell. Each volume chronicles one month of the major crises in Nikki’s eighth-grade life, including waiting for an invitation to the prom from her crush, Brandon Roberts.
The trio will discuss the latest installment, “Dork Diaries 6: Tales from a Not-So-Happy Heartbreaker,” on Tuesday at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh. They will also visit a Cary elementary school while in the area.
Russell says she drew on the experiences of her two daughters.
“They were given such a hard time in school,” says the 54-year-old author. “I had to transfer them. ‘Dork’ is mostly based on them. … They were both straight-A students, spoke standard English and did their homework.”
That made them the target of some mean behavior. Like Nikki, Russell’s daughter Erin was tripped in the school cafeteria. When other students were wearing oversized sports shirts, her daughters wore leggings and matching sweaters.
“They walked to the beat of a different drummer,” she says.
Eventually, Russell transferred them from the public school to a small Catholic school where their differences were welcomed.
Tween craze for ‘Dork’
The fictional character Nikki attends private school because her father, the school’s bug exterminator, asked for her tuition as part of his compensation package. While Nikki feels extremely unpopular in school, the same can’t be said for the “Dork Diaries” books.
The series for tweens has sold more than 10 million copies in less than four years. Like the rest of the country, Triangle children are crazy about the “Dork Diaries.”
“Oh my goodness, I don’t think we have any on the shelves right now,” says Jessica Adams, a children’s librarian at Durham County’s main library. She says upper elementary school girls love them. “They are written like a graphic novel: The diaries look like handwriting, and it has pictures drawn in Japanese manga style. The characters have big eyes, and some of their features are exaggerated.”
Adams explains that the books are approachable. Young readers can be intimidated by a 300-plus page book.
“It can seem daunting, but they read it and feel a sense of accomplishment.”
Carol Risucci, the lead literary teacher at Chesterbrook Academy Elementary School in Cary, says her students can’t wait for their school visit with the Russells.
“They are so pumped. I have a couple of girls who are trying to read through all of them. At our school, authors are up there with famous athletes. We have a famous person coming into our school to tell us about her craft.”
Sage Crosby, a fifth-grader at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, chose the “Dork Diaries” for her summer reading project. The 10-year-old Sage created a 3-D collage portraying some of the scenes from the book. Sage and her mother found a crown, sequined hearts and a pink Barbie doll dress from a local dollar store. Sage even took the extra step of corresponding with the author via email and incorporated some of Russell’s answers to her questions into the project.
Sage can’t wait to meet Russell in person. “We will be the first ones there,” says Sage’s mother, Tijuana Crosby.
‘Don’t give up on your dreams’
One of the messages of the series is for kids to tell an adult if they are having problems with someone in school. Unlike the fictional Nikki, who tries to handle things on her own, Russell wants kids who are being bullied to talk to an adult.
“You’re not always going to fit in. Love yourself, and take pride in yourself. Always let your inner dork shine through,” she says.
Russell, a former consumer bankruptcy attorney, admits that she learned that lesson when her 25-year marriage fell apart. Her former husband, a dentist, left her.
“I lost my house, my business and my car,” says Russell.
She explains that her daughters were in college, and most of her income was going to their tuition. She didn’t have savings because her husband had been taking care of that. Russell says her family went from being likened to the fictional Huxtables, an affluent African-American family from the TV series “The Cosby Show,” to having the bottom fall out.
But by June 2009, a month after her divorce was final, Russell hit pay dirt when “Dork Diaries” made The New York Times best-seller list. She now works full time as an author and employs her daughters as well. Six weeks ago, Russell says “Dork Diaries” was optioned for a movie.
“There is a God in heaven, that’s my testimony,” said Russell. “Don’t give up on your dreams.”