For most middle schoolers, especially girls, “dork” is a four-letter word.
But University of Michigan alumnae, Erin and Nikki Russell, the co-author and illustrator, respectively, of the best-selling book series Dork Diaries,have turned “dorkiness” into something cool, encouraging countless “tween” readers to “let their inner dork shine through.”
“Dork Diarieshas a universal theme, because so many young girls and boys are bullied while growing up, just as Nikki and I were,” says Erin Russell. “Our mother [author Rachel Reneé Russell, who originated the book series in 2009] says she was inspired by our stories─all our trials and tribulations. Whenever we’d come home, we’d tell her about the popular girl who was mean to us or the cute boy we wished we could talk to. All the pre-teen things we went through have ended up in these books.”
Team Dork on the rise
The Dork Diariesseries revolves around the adventures and misadventures of a fictional eighth-grader, Nikki Maxwell, who makes her way through the angst-ridden maze of middle-school life as she matches wits with her arch nemesis and foremost intimidator, MacKenzie Hollister. Writing in her diary, Nikki reveals the topsy-turvy emotions of a typical 14-year-old, yet shows that a smart, resourceful girl can proudly embrace her dorkiness and turn it into something good. The message of developing self-confidence, self-esteem, and resilience resonates with next-generation girls, who face similar hurdles in life.
To date, “Team Dork,” as the threesome calls themselves, has produced 13 illustrated books in the series. They’ve sold more than 35 million copies worldwide and their work has been translated into 36 languages. Dork Diaries,a No. 1 New York Times best-selling series, published by Simon & Schuster, has been on the children’s series list for more than 200 weeks. In 2016, Rachel Reneé Russell made the Forbes list of five top-earning children’s book authors, with an income of $8.5 million.
The response to Dork Diarieshas been nothing less than amazing. “We get loads of fan mail every month,” Erin Russell reports. “Girls and boys tell us they want to grow up and become artists or writers.”
Voices of experience
In real life, Nikki and Erin encountered their fair share of challenges as tweens when they changed schools several times during a move from St. Joseph, Mich., to Kentwood, a suburb of Grand Rapids.
“I was that awkward new girl at a new school,” Erin says. “Both Nikki and I had to learn how to adjust to a new environment and stand up for ourselves.”
In one scene from Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not So Fabulous Life,a girl trips Nikki Maxwell in the school cafeteria, and her food goes flying everywhere. “That happened to me in middle school,” Erin says. “It was a very intense moment, but I just brushed the food off myself and did my best not to cry. I didn’t want to let the person who tripped me know how bad I felt. You can never back down to your bully.”
Nikki remembers her most poignant “dorky” moment, which also became a vignette in the book.
“There was a girl in my class who was very popular and had a lot of friends,” she says. “One day she brought invitations for her birthday party to our classroom and gave them to almost everybody, except me. I was heartbroken.” In the Dork Diariesversion of the incident, the fictional Nikki Maxwell pluckily brushes off MacKenzie Hollister’s mean-spirited snub and comes out on top. “What makes a dork cool is when he or she is confident and comfortable in his or her own skin,” Nikki says. “As long as you embrace what makes you unique, then other people begin to respect it.”
Embracing the inner dork
Nikki and Erin say their years at the University of Michigan, from 2002-08, opened pathways to self-discovery, and their stay at Martha Cook, an all-women residence hall, surrounded them with smart, creative individuals from diverse backgrounds.
“I went to Michigan to major in elementary education, but my minor in fine arts led me back to my natural passion, which was drawing and art,” says Nikki, BA ’08. After graduation, she taught elementary education at two schools in Virginia, but in 2010, she accepted her mother’s invitation to work full time as the illustrator for Dork Diaries.
Erin knew she wanted to pursue a major in English and a minor in creative writing at U-M.
“My obsession was going to my creative-writing class and doing peer edits with other young writers,” she says. “The University opened me up to this world where I could explore my creativity. It was the best thing that ever happened, and it made me who I am.”
On campus, Erin wrote and illustrated a comic strip called “Joy,” which lampooned popular culture and politics. It ran in The Michigan Daily from 2005-07, and gained popularity among students. With encouragement from the Daily staff, Erin entered and won a national competition for the Charles Schulz Award. An editor from United Media, the newspaper-syndication service, was so impressed with Erin’s work that she offered her a one-year development deal for “Joy.” Erin left Michigan in 2007 and continued to create “Joy” comic strips for possible syndication with United Media. Gradually, she refocused her energies on creative writing, and in 2011, she became a co-author of Dork Diariesto help her mother and sister expand the book series.
The creative juices of “Team Dork” continue to flow in Chantilly, Va., home to Erin and her husband, Jacob Boesen, as well as Nikki and her two poodles, Shadow and Daisy. Getting three strong-willed women to work collaboratively on any project could be a challenge in some families, but not for the Russells, who are writing their 14th Dork Diariesbook.
“It’s a blessing that we get along pretty well,” Nikki says. “My mom comes up with a chapter outline and then bounces ideas off Erin. I usually illustrate a chapter after it’s written. But sometimes, I’m asked to create the artwork first, which then inspires them to write the story. It’s a cycle and we feed off one another.”
Both Erin and Nikki would like to have daughters someday.
“I’d love to tell my daughter about my experiences, empower her, and teach her to always let her inner dork shine through,” Nikki says.
“If I have a daughter, I hope she’s a dork,” Erin adds. “And I know she will be a confident dork, who is ready and able to take on the world.”
(Top image, courtesy of the Russells: Erin, Rachel Reneé, and Nikki Russell with some of their favorite dorks.)