By Hope Katz Gibbs
Sometimes kids just know whom they are going to be when you grow up. Take Rachel Renee Russell, author of the New York Times Bestselling Series, the “Dork Diaries,” who has been writing young adult books since she was in the 6th grade.
That’s the year she wrote “The Donny and Ronny Book,” for her younger twin brothers.
“They loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Sesame Street, and I told the story of their lives with markers and construction paper,” explains the native of Saint Joseph, Michigan who from that point on dreamt of becoming a professional writer.
At Northwestern University, though, her literary dreams were dashed.
“I signed up for a writing class with a professor who had published a popular children’s book, because I thought I’d learn a lot and that he’d help set me on a great path,” she recalls. “But after handing in a few assignments, he assured me that I was the worst writer on the planet and that he was doing me a favor by giving me a C.”
Russell took the criticism to heart, and set her sights on a law career. She landed a seat at Wayne State School of Law in Detroit, and within a decade was one of the top consumer bankruptcy attorneys in Michigan. She also married her college sweetheart, and had two daughters, Nikki and Erin.
But not long before her 49th birthday, her husband announced that he wanted a divorce. Russell—although devastated—considered it an opportunity to do the thing she always dreamed of: write. She gathered her courage, dusted off a manuscript she had been toying with for a few years, and submitted it to a literary agent.
“The agent loved it,” Russell says today of the story that eventually became the first in the “Dork Diaries,” series. “I have always been good at bouncing back, even when my heart is broken.”
Less than a month after her divorce was finalized, her Simon & Schuster book became a New York Times Bestseller—and spent 96 weeks on the coveted list. As of the fall 2011, there are 3.5 million books of the “Dork Diaries” in print.
One pass through the fuchsia-covered “Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life,” and it’s easy to see why it is such a hit.
From the first double-spaced, entertainingly illustrated entry on Saturday, August 31, You’ll be sucked into the adolescent life of Nikki Maxwell, 14. It’s two days before she starts middle school at a Westchester Country Day, and her mission is to convince her mother to buy her a cell phone. “What better way to clinch a spot in the CCP (Cute, Cool & Popular) group at my new private school, than by dazzling them with a new cell,” she reasons.
Unfortunately, when mom comes home from the mall with a shopping bag, Nikki is crestfallen to find her gift is a diary. “Sometimes I wonder if my mom is BRAIN DEAD,” Nikki writes. “Then there are days when I know she is. Like today.”
In the following chapters of the 282-page hardback, we meet Nikki’s nemesis, the perennially popular MacKenzie. In addition to being the best-dressed girl at school, she has her eyes on the irresistible Brandon, the first boy with whom Nikki would like to test out her Krazy Kissalicous Strawberry Crush Glitterati lip-gloss.
Readers also gain insights into Nikki’s education as she unravels the plot to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” figures out how to calculate the volume of a cylinder, and breaks a bottle of perfume in French class—but can’t apologize to the teacher because she can’t quite pronounce his name. “It sounds like a sneeze,” the protagonist writes in her diary.
Russell says she was able to artfully weave all of the pieces of Nikki’s middle school trials and tribulations into a playful tapestry because she was living through them with her own teenage girls.
“Both of my girls had a really hard time in school, but especially Nikki, who is now 24,” the author admits. “Not only were they picked on, but eventually it got physical. Although I tried to work it out with the administrators, I had to step in and put them into a different school. It was a really difficult time for all of us, but I think that’s why I write so well about the drama of being a dork because we lived through the horror years.”
Fortunately, the family drew strength from adversity and both of her daughters currently work for mom. Nikki, an artist who studied education, helps with the illustrations, and Erin works on the manuscripts.
For the foreseeable future, the family will be dorking out in style.
Rounding out the New York Times Bestselling series is book two, “Tales from a No-So-Popular Party Girl,” and book three, “Tales from a No-So-Talented Pop Star,” which take us through November of the school year. Russell is currently putting the finishing touches on book 4. And this summer, Simon & Schuster bought the publishing rights to produce books 5 and 6.
“The Dork Diaries are my ticket to a new life,” says Russell, who now lives in Northern Virginia near her sister, a dentist. “Just like my character, I am a work in progress. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Hope Katz Gibbs is a freelance writer in Arlington, VA, who despite being the president of her senior class and captain of the varsity cheerleading squad was a closet dork. “I made straight A’s and went to an Ivy League college,” she says. “Power to the dorks.”