As the girl moved toward her, arms outstretched, Rachel Renée Russell needed a beat to react. She had rarely, if ever, experienced this with students. Kids sometimes sought hugs at bookstores, but not at schools. Sitting behind a table at McNair Elementary in Herndon, Va., the author swiveled to the side and embraced the tween. Then the floodgates opened. No longer would the children, in line 80-deep, settle for just autographs and bookmarks. Rachel’s writing had touched them, and now many wanted to touch her.
Within minutes, the hugs spread to Rachel’s two daughters, who help Mom create the best-selling kids’ series “Dork Diaries.” Nine of every 10 pupils in line were female, and within a few years, these fans will be the same age as the characters in the books . The sense of connection is strong.
So just like that, a three-step routine emerged.
Autograph. Selfie. Hug.
Autograph. Selfie. Hug.
“Children, go report to dismissal,” an adult in charge said to several fans.
“Okay, but make it quick, girls.”
Autograph. Selfie. Hugs.
“I’ve had to learn to adjust to it at events,” said Rachel’s elder daughter and contributing writer, Erin Russell, 31.
To her left, younger daughter and illustrator Nikki Russell, 29, leaned in for a photo. A former primary-school teacher, she looked comfortable being at the center of a student swarm.
Autograph. Selfie. Hug.
Rachel knows that the hug requests mean the books are a form of bonding. “I like Oprah and Michelle Obama, and if I ever met them, I could hug them easily,” she said, “because I feel like I’ve already bonded with them and admire their work.”
Ask these huddles of third- through sixth-graders why they like “Dork Diaries” so much, and they’ll excitedly say it’s because of “the humor” and “the cliffhangers” and “the drama.” McNair teacher JC Thomas says a deeper reason, based on classroom feedback, is that the kids just plain relate to the adolescent characters.
Nikki stood up and was soon the one taking photos. A band of students wanted a group pic, but first, Nikki issued her go-to command: “Say ‘Dorky’!” She raised the camera as the kids raised the volume, a proud “geek” chorus of “Door-keeee!”
And when the kids opened their signed books — any one of the eight in the series, until the ninth hits stores June 2 — they saw the same empowering inscription: “Let your inner dork shine!”
The Family Russell stayed to sign every last book. Mother and daughters value the young fans who roam school halls, because that is precisely where, years ago, the personal crucible that forged “Dork Diaries” played out. Before there was a family publishing juggernaut — more than 20 million books in print in some three dozen countries in six years — there were the years of sadness and frustration, pain and resilience.
This is the story of how a mother, through fierce love and literary vision, buoyed her daughters, who had been bullied and harassed and ostracized — and how the three became the most popular of co-authors, one autograph and selfie and hug at a time.
Step into the gleaming foyer of Rachel’s beautifully appointed, seven-bedroom house in Chantilly, Va., and it’s striking to think that just six short years ago, she had surrendered her family home.
This, in so many ways, is the House That Dork Built.
Rachel, now 55, worked for many years as a lawyer in Michigan, outside Grand Rapids, and most of the money she made, she says, went to meeting her family’s needs, including multiple college tuitions. Her husband, who was a metals plant manager when they met, pursued a career in medicine and eventually became a public-health official in Iowa. Then out of the blue in February 2008, she says, came the news that turned her life upside down.
Rachel and her husband of 26 years — the father of Erin and Nikki — had built their life on a shared dream, she says, but then one day came a change of plans: He said he was building a new life.
That was the beginning of the most trying of years. Rachel had worked on creating stories but now began “writing for my life.” Amid financial difficulties, she says, she served as her own divorce attorney. That summer, she survived a cancer scare, even as she ended up surrendering her car and house. The divorce process began in April, and she began to plan a fresh path.
By Christmas, Rachel had moved to Northern Virginia to start a new life near relatives.
Rachel, who was born Rhonda Edwards outside Grand Rapids, had always been driven and creative. When Rhonda was in pre-kindergarten, her grandmother would cut up paper grocery bags so the child could draw on them, recalls her mother, Doris Edwards, who lives with Rachel and helps with the family business.
As a child and teenager, she wrote and illustrated books for all four of her siblings, says a younger sister, Kim James.
“As the oldest of five children, Rachel was a trailblazer, always setting and raising the bar and seeking success regardless of her endeavor,” James says. “If something didn’t work out as planned, she’d pick herself up and try again and again until she got it right.
“When Rachel ran for student council during middle school and high school, she didn’t just hang a few posters throughout the school. Rather, she created a full-blown marketing campaign, which consisted of fliers, buttons, posters and stickers. It was a huge success, and she helped me do the same thing,” says James, who is Rachel’s business manager.
Rachel seemed to succeed at whatever she ran for. As a sprinter, she received a track scholarship to Northwestern and holds a retired state record for the 220-yard dash (25.1 seconds), which she set in 1976, according to the Michigan High School Athletic Association. After law school at Wayne State, she practiced as a consumer bankruptcy lawyer.
Then, nearing 50, Rachel was suddenly on her own, starting over.
After learning her husband wasn’t returning, she decided to pursue children’s book projects; one involved fairies, the other a socially awkward teen girl. She pitched her work through a publishing-industry Web site. A Writers House agent, Daniel Lazar, spotted it and had immediate interest. “It was just really funny,” he recalls.
In the middle of 2008, Rachel rapidly landed a two-book deal with Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The publisher fast-tracked the project.
“My message to others is to never, ever give up,” Rachel says. “As long as you are still breathing, there is always hope, and you can still achieve your dreams.”
In May 2009, Rachel’s divorce was finalized.
The next month, the first “Dork Diaries” book, “Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life,” debuted on the New York Times bestseller list.
“It was,” Rachel says, “like a miracle.”
The word “dork” may not mean what you remember it means, particularly on the playground.
Best-selling “Big Nate” creator Lincoln Peirce, who has a new kids’ book out called “ Say Good-Bye to Dork City ,” remembers when, a quarter-century ago, his syndicate wouldn’t let him use the word in his comic strip because of one particular R-rated definition. “To me,” Peirce says, “it was nothing more or less than a synonym for ‘nerd’ or ‘dweeb.’ ”
With the rise of geek culture, the connotations changed.
Now, “it’s a type of self-empowerment,” Peirce says. “If there’s a word that stings, embracing it and making it your own is a way to take away its power to hurt you. Kids understand that better than anyone.”
In 2008, when Rachel was trying to come up with a name for her book — a 14-year-old girl’s diary — she thought of her own daughters’ school experiences. “When Erin and Nikki were younger, they were called dorks at school,” Rachel says. “One morning, Erin got fed up, and she said at the birthday table, ‘Dorks are cool!’ She embraced it.”
Erin was perhaps ahead of her time. But that empowered approach speaks to why kids have bought “Dork Diaries” by the millions and resulted in a Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award nomination . Many of the characters are engagingly open about how they wrestle with their imperfections.
The Russell family — as well as Rachel’s mother, sister Kim James and brother Donald Edwards, who aids in this empire — call themselves Team Dork for a reason. “We turned it into a term of endearment,” Rachel says.
Lazar notes that Rachel has employed the word “adorkable” for years, “before Fox was putting it on billboards” for the show “New Girl.” And daughter Nikki, for whom the “Dork Diaries” protagonist is named, says owning the word “dork” means that “we acknowledge that sometimes you may dance to the beat of your own drummer.”
That description fits lead character Nikki Maxwell, an artsy 14-year-old who’s a self-described dork and the “ninth most unpopular girl” at Westchester Country Day. Key characters include her brown-haired crush, Brandon Roberts, and her mean-girl nemesis, MacKenzie Hollister.
Nikki Maxwell is flawed enough that kids can see aspects of themselves, says series editor Liesa Abrams. “Some authors take that pencil eraser to their characters’ flaws, but Nikki is real, which makes her relatable.”
When Nikki is embarrassed that her father is an exterminator, or when she wants to change schools after ruining an art project that was a last-ditch attempt at popularity, that vulnerability is appealing to young readers — especially when Nikki retains the honesty and humor and self-respect to redeem herself by each tale’s end.
Nikki, in other words, has a certain phoenix-like quality — much like Rachel Renée Russell herself.
How often, really, do unknown, first-time authors go from agent query to the bestseller list in less than a year?
Rachel’s timing was typically exquisite.
A few years earlier, author Jeff Kinney, who grew up in Fort Washington, Md., had launched his “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. Its popularity — it’s a half-billion-dollar franchise — helped spark a hot market for illustrated children’s novels, which includes such bestsellers as “Big Nate” and “Timmy Failure.”
“Jeff Kinney, with ‘Wimpy Kid,’ had taught retailers how to sell illustrated novels not in the graphic-novel section, but rather in the kids’ section,” says Lazar, Rachel’s agent. “The amazing thing Jeff did was, he taught retailers and consumers that this was as much a novel as ‘Percy Jackson’ is.”
Kinney illuminates the dynamic he helped popularize. “I certainly didn’t invent the concept of an illustrated journal or ‘diary’ fiction,” he says. “I think that what I did was create a very particular format where the interaction of text and comics creates a rhythm, a call-and-response that’s essential to the humor. The DNA of my books is in comics, not literature. In a sense, the books are long-form comics.”
Rachel had long enjoyed diary fiction and says her format was influenced by Erin, who was creating her own comics at about that time.
Rachel also intentionally made Nikki and her two best friends ethnically diverse. “Nikki Maxwell is Caucasian, Zoeysha Ebony Franklin is African American and Chloe Christina Garcia is Latina,” Rachel says. “I wanted my readers to see themselves in my books. I also have characters who are of Asian and Jewish ancestries, and one uses a wheelchair.”
The approach soon paid off: “Dork Diaries” became a hit.
“I’ve been impressed with the success of the ‘Dork Diaries’ series,” Kinney says. “Rachel has certainly touched a nerve with her writing.”
And to keep touching that audience nerve, Rachel mines the challenges and insults she saw her daughters endure, tapping the universal. When the three Russell women sit around Rachel’s dining table, those wounds readily rise to the surface for examination and inspiration.
In a sleek black-and-gold dress and heels that put her over 6 feet tall, Nikki Russell exudes grace and confidence as she rivets the hundreds of McNair grade-schoolers packing the cafeteria. She is drawing cartoon portraits of students — what she calls “Dorkify-ing” someone — and the kids lean forward on the floor, beguiled.
She might be the picture of poise, but when Nikki was the age of these pupils, she was enduring bullying and teasing. She was artistically expressive and thoughtful, and she became a target — like the time she converted rolling luggage into a colorful, hand-decorated backpack, and classmates kicked it through the halls.
She attended a school outside Grand Rapids. “I really wanted to fit in with people who were my race, only I ... didn’t speak in the black vernacular,” Nikki says. She didn’t mind the vernacular, but because of how she spoke, she says, “that singled me out.”
Nikki also got bored in class and could seem disinterested, her mother remembers. “I was in special education at one point,” Nikki says, “and learning needs are not a reason to insult people.” One teacher told her the most she could grow up to be was a grocery bagger.
Motivated by her own school experience, Nikki majored in elementary education at the University of Michigan, then taught primary grades for a time in Northern Virginia, before illustrating “Dork Diaries” became a career move.
“In the beginning, I just wanted to impress my mom,” Nikki says. “I was officially on the project by about book 3.”
Most of Nikki’s art for the books is in one of two styles: cartoon-realistic, with fleshed-out features, and darkly rendered stick figures. “The more I’ve improved it,” she says, “the more daring I’ve become.”
Nikki is moved by the poignancy in her mother’s prose, such as when the lead character is embarrassed by a mean girl in front of the whole cafeteria or feels so down about herself that she wants to leave school. “Nikki Maxwell is very sweet,” she says, “but she is also very honest and is not afraid to tell the truth about what she is feeling and thinking.”
For most of a long, painful decade, there loomed a real MacKenzie Hollister, the popular mean girl in “Dork Diaries.” The true-life “MacKenzie” lived across the street from the Russells in Michigan (though her name has been changed in the books to protect the less-than-innocent).
“This girl was so bad that everyone in my family knew her,” Erin Russell says. “At the bus stop, ‘MacKenzie’ and her friend would harass us. I would stand up for myself, and Nikki would do the same thing, like my sidekick, so I wasn’t alone.”
Mama Russell twice transferred her daughters out of schools because of bullying, but still, always, there was MacKenzie the menace right across the road.
“All of those horrible flashbacks to being a preteen,” Erin says, “now I use them positively.”
Erin exudes a quiet strength, and her natural sense of humor is darker, edgier than the general tone of “Dork Diaries.” You can see it in her college comic strip, “Jaded Joy,” in which humorous twists leave a student chomping down Ritalin instead of candy, and an attempt to protect the ecology backfires, resulting in one bloody duck. Erin likes political satire, too, and won a national college cartooning honor, the Charles M. Schulz Award, while studying creative writing at the University of Michigan.
In 2007, Erin signed a development contract with United Media, which hoped to syndicate “Jaded Joy.” After about a year of her efforts, though, United chose not to launch the strip into a highly competitive market. Amid her parents’ divorce proceedings, Erin took a break from drawing. Four years ago, she came aboard Team Dork as a contributing writer.
Next month, the series will offer “Dork Diaries 9: Tales From a Not-So-Dorky Drama Queen,” a story weighted toward MacKenzie instead of Nikki. The change didn’t come without reservations. Abrams, the editor, worried that fans would miss Nikki for long stretches. But the Russells wanted to do a “bad girl” book.
“As a writer and a lover of great theater and an English geek, I love a complex bad guy,” Erin says. “I want to know what’s driving them. That’s why I was really excited to do a MacKenzie book: It shows you that there are reasons for her insecurity and reasons she’s so bad. Maybe that will help a dork understand her better.
“Everyone has a MacKenzie. When we do book signings and tour schools, whenever we joke about MacKenzie, there are kids who want to tell us about their MacKenzie.”
Team Dork has other new adventures bubbling for the future. They’ve made a film deal with Lionsgate’s Summit Entertainment, with “Twilight” producer Karen Rosenfelt aboard. They also have a development deal for a reality-TV show with Discovery, Rachel says.
They plan to address cyberbullying in the next two “Dork Diaries” books. In their talks at schools, the authors even go over a list of cyberbullying tips.
And then there’s the blueprint to expand the Russell family’s literary empire. Rachel and Nikki are working on “Locker Hero,” a book that might skew more toward boys, an audience Rachel wants to reach more fully. Erin is working on a children’s story about a fairy prankster who spreads the flu.
And Rachel says she’ll keep writing “Dork Diaries” as long as kids keep reading them.
Meantime, she wants to see her daughters soar ever higher. They once wanted to blend in like drone insects, she says, but they can’t deny their brilliant natures “as butterflies.”
“And ‘Dork Diaries,’ ” she says hopefully, “is just the launching pad.”
Michael Cavna, a visual storyteller and cartoonist, is creator of The Post’s “Comic Riffs” column. Follow him on Twitter: @comicriffs. To comment on this story,e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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