AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
I'm Melissa Block. And it's time now for NPR's Backseat Book Club. Each month, we pick a book and ask kids to read along with us. As always, NPR's Michele Norris has mapped out our trip and wants us to meet this month's author.
RACHEL RENEE RUSSELL: My name is Rachel Renee Russell, and I'm the author of The New York Time bestselling series "Dork Diaries."
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Twelve million "Dork Diary" books are in print. First launched four years ago, the brightly colored "Dork Diary" books are wildly popular. Number six in the series was published in June. The seventh will be out next summer. And author Rachel Renee Russell has an international following. Her books have been published in 34 different languages. One reason for the book's success, kids relate to the high-wire drama of middle school life for the main character, Nikki Maxwell. The books are designed to look like entries from Nikki's secret diary, and each book starts this way.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) This diary belongs to Nikki J. Maxwell, private and confidential. If found, please return to me for reward. No snooping allowed.
NORRIS: Nikki Maxwell has a constellation of challenges. She's a misfit at a new school. She juggles boy troubles, mean girls and a tattletale little sister. She's smart but often feels like she has to decide whether she wants to be popular or embrace the fact that she's viewed as a dork. Rachel Renee Russell said she loves writing for this age group. And at NPR's Backseat Book Club, we love putting young readers in the driver's seat. So here's a question from Pele. She lives in California.
PELE PANCIA: May name is Pele Pancia(ph). I live in Ojai, California. I'm 10 years old. And my question is: What inspired you to write the "Dork Diary" series?
RUSSELL: What inspired me to write the "Dork Diary" series definitely my two daughters, Erin and Nikki. And I'd say probably about 80 percent of what we put in the book series is true or based on a true story, you know, or incident that actually happened to them. So...
NORRIS: What is, in your mind, a dork? How do you define it? And were you, in some ways, trying to take the word back?
RUSSELL: Exactly. And that's what happened with my two daughters, Erin and Nikki. When they were in middle school, they were smart. They did their homework on time. They enjoyed having a nice relationship with the teachers, and they answered questions. And they were considered by a lot of people to be dorks. And they were teased and not invited to parties, and kids made fun of their clothes and the way they talked. And it was just horrible, horrible, horrible. And one morning, Erin just had enough. Erin is my older daughter, and she's like, you know what, I'm proud to be a dork and being a dork is cool, and I'm unique, and I'm different, and I'm creative. So I took that whole concept and basically just channeled it into "Dork Diaries."
NORRIS: But Nikki and Erin are in their 20s now, and their mom wants to make sure the book sound fresh. So she test-drives new material with younger nieces.
RUSSELL: They'll tell us if a word or slang is still in or not. A lot of times...
NORRIS: Give me an example.
RUSSELL: Something that's in now is ratchet, and ratchet means bad or tacky or whatever.
NORRIS: You see me nodding because...
NORRIS: ...because I have a 14-year-old, and I hear that around the house a lot, yeah.
RUSSELL: Oh, yes. There you go.
NORRIS: And I wonder where did that come from?
RUSSELL: Yes. Exactly, exactly. See, another word. I'm trying to think of one that means relaxation. I'll probably...
NORRIS: Like chillax.
RUSSELL: Chillax, there you go.
RUSSELL: Yes. Chillax was one of the words, and I'm like chillax. So that means chill and relax, and you kind of mash them together and you get chillax. So they contributed chillax and ratchet.
NORRIS: These books have been wildly successful. You're on The New York Times bestseller list with these books. But when you read the reviews, a word that often comes up is bubblegum, that they're light as air, that they're not serious. Your reaction to that.
RUSSELL: My reaction is that when I sat down and decided what type of books I wanted to write and what type of author I wanted to be, I wanted to be an author that children love to read. I wanted to be funny. I wanted to be relevant. So I am not the least bit offended by that. Again, I love what I do. And if it's cotton candy or fluff, I don't have a problem with that at all, and that is part of my goal. I just want kids to read.
NORRIS: You're African-American, and you chose to make Nikki a character who's not African-American. Tell me about that decision.
RUSSELL: Nikki Maxwell just came to me as a Caucasian little girl. And when I sat down and made that decision, I thought, well, I don't know, you know, what's society going to think? I'm a black woman and can I do this? And my inspiration was Shonda Rhimes, and Shonda Rhimes is a TV producer and a director, and she's done "Scandal" and...
NORRIS: "Grey's Anatomy."
RUSSELL: ..."Grey's Anatomy." And she struggled with the very same thing. So I thought, well, I'm in good company. She does have African-American characters, and I do too. But her - she had to kind of go through the same mental gymnastics. As a black woman, do I want to kind of, you know, reach outside of my comfort zone and write a character of a different race and a different age? And she made the decision to do that with both of her television shows, which are wildly successful, and I thought, well, if Shonda can do it, then I'm going to, you know, to try to do this too.
NORRIS: Russell decided to pick up a pen and try writing when her two daughters moved away from home to start their own lives. If you listen carefully, you hear her say we a lot, and that's because the "Dork Diaries" series has become a family affair. Russell used to write and painstakingly illustrate the books on her own. Now, she's hired daughter Nikki as an illustrator. Her other daughter Erin is a writer for the series. Her brother is an administrative assistant. Her sister is a manager. And Russell's mom? Well, she keeps them all in line.
When you meet Russell, she will remind you that she's a bestselling author. You heard that in our introduction, and she's earned that. Her own hard-luck life story is like a you-go-girl beach read.
RUSSELL: I was going through a divorce. I'd been married 25 years, and my life was unraveling. My kids were grown up and in college, and the bottom had basically fallen out of my life. So I look at Nikki Maxwell kind of as something that kept me going and a friend that, you know, I would talk to and write about and that would - kept me from like, you know, having a nervous breakdown or whatever. So, yes, I think my divorce was finalized in April, and "Dork Diaries" was released like six weeks later, and it hit The New York Times bestsellers list. So, again, I would say definitely "Dork Diaries" was a wonderful distraction and a whole new life and a new career for me.
NORRIS: You sat down on that empty nest and wrote yourself a new life.
RUSSELL: I sure did, yeah. That is a wonderful way to put it. Thank you.
NORRIS: That was Rachel Renee Russell talking with us about the "Dork Diaries" series. Our next book will be another bestseller, R.J. Palacio's "Wonder." In that book, 10-yr-old Auggie Pullman was born with a facial deformity, so severe people turn away or shudder in fear when they see him. But readers can't help but cheer as he finds his way in a new school. You'll enjoy it.
I'm Michele Norris, NPR News.
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BLOCK: And "Wonder" is just one of 100 books on NPR's Ultimate Backseat Bookshelf. You can discover the other 99 on the list at our website, npr.org.