A Dork Is Born
Eighth-grader Nikki Maxwell has just moved to a new school, one in which she doesn’t fit and where she definitely feels unwelcome. But that’s nothing compared to what she really wants: an iPhone (something her mother won’t allow her to have yet). As this “dork” makes her way through the travails of school life, writer and artist Rachel Renée Russell introduces us to a lovable character along the lines of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim. This time, it’s a character for the young-girl set, and the story, while primarily a prose novel, is accompanied by comic art throughout. It’s not a straight-up graphic novel by any means, but it’s a mixture that will appeal to a lot of comics and manga fans. And it’s already a huge hit with its target audience. We talked with Russell about her bestselling creation.
Congratulations—you just hit the New York Times bestseller list! How does that feel?
Actually, I’m ecstatic. I was hoping it would happen, but I’m very shocked and surprised that it did. I have this fear that one day I’m going to wake up and realize I’ve fallen asleep at my desk while writing Dork Diaries and this whole thing is all just a wonderful dream.
What defines a dork?
For the purposes of my book, a dork is defined as a person who doesn’t fit in with or aspire to be like the most popular kids. They tend to be independent in their thinking, tastes, and clothing styles. Basically, a dork is the total opposite of what the main character, Nikki, calls a CCP (Cool, Cute, and Popular) kid.
What makes Nikki Maxwell a dork?
Nikki transfers to a very wealthy private school and has a hard time adjusting due to her very middle-class sensibilities. She dresses differently from the other kids at her school, refuses to follow the crowd, and writes obsessively in her diary. MacKenzie, the most popular girl at her school, labels her a dork.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Saint Joseph, Michigan, in a big, happy family. My home was about two miles from Lake Michigan.
Dork Diaries mixes text and drawings. Do you have an interest in graphic novels?
Yes, I definitely have an interest in doing a graphic novel at some point in the future. Actually, the project I was working on before Dork Diaries was a graphic novel.
Which comics and manga are you a fan of?
I’m a big fan of manga and I feel my illustration style is very manga-influenced. Because I write for younger girls, I really enjoy Ultra Maniac by Wataru Yoshizumi. I also love OEL (Original English Language) manga, like Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova and Sorcerers and Secretaries by Amy Ganter.
What’s your background as an illustrator?
I’m an attorney by profession. Writing and illustrating started as a hobby and then just evolved from that point. So I’ve not had any formal training. I don’t even consider myself a “real” illustrator.
What was your most vivid memory of eighth grade? And how did it influence what you’re doing in Dork Diaries?
I spent most of seventh grade feeling very insecure and trying my hardest to fit in with the “cool” crowd. But, by the start of eighth grade, I was so tired and frustrated that I decided to just settle with being plain old boring me. It was a pivotal year in my life because I finally started to like myself and make real friends. I also went from seeing the glass as half empty to seeing it as half full. A lot of the material in Dork Diaries is based on my experiences in middle school, as well as those of my youngest daughter.
What do you see happening next in the series and for Nikki?
I’m currently working on Dork Diaries book two and it’s scheduled for release next summer. It will cover the next two months of Nikki’s Not-So-Fabulous Life at Westchester Country Day Middle School. Hoping to attend several parties and the Halloween Costume Ball, Nikki struggles to transform herself from an Art Dork into a Social Butterfly.
Who are some of your influences in the YA field?
My favorite authors are Meg Cabot (Princess Diaries) and Barbara Park (Junie B. Jones), who are both very funny and talented. I also was influenced by the award-winning graphic novelists Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese) and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis).
Who influenced you as an artist?
I wasn’t really influenced by one specific artist. I’ve tried to incorporate the best techniques from author/illustrators like Wataru Yoshizumi, Svetlana Chmakova, and Amy Ganter and cartoonists like Charles Schulz (Peanuts), Bill Amend (Fox Trot), and Jef Mallett (Frazz). So I’ve had lots of influences.