Rachel Renée Russell, DORK DIARIES 15: Tales from a Not-So-Posh Paris Adventure

Rachel Renée Russell, DORK DIARIES 15: Tales from a Not-So-Posh Paris Adventure

Zibby interviews Rachel Renée Russell, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of DORK DIARIES, and Nikki Russell, her daughter and illustrator. Rachel and Nikki reveal the inspiration behind their latest book, DORK DIARIES 15: Tales from a Not-So-Posh Paris Adventure (it involves a pandemic-impacted trip…), and then discuss their creative process, the enduring popularity of their characters, the unexpected success of the franchise, and the positive impact they’ve had on young readers. Ultimately, the interview provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into an incredible mother-daughter dynamic that has fueled the success of DORK DIARIES for over a decade.


Zibby Owens: Welcome. I’m so excited. Today, I get to talk to Rachel and Nikki about Dork Diaries. This is so exciting. Wow. Welcome.

Rachel Renée Russell: We’re super excited to be here.

Zibby: I have to say, right before this, I was dropping my kids at school. I had the Dork Diaries out because I was showing my son, who loves the books and all that. One of his friends walked over. He was like, “You know, my mom is interviewing the authors.” She was like, “What?” I was like, “What should I ask?” She was like, “Find out why MacKenzie has to be so mean.” How did MacKenzie get so mean? I have to just ask you that before I forget. That’s my first question. Then we’ll go into the whole series.

Rachel: The reason MacKenzie is so mean — actually, she’s probably meaner to Nikki than she is most people. When Nikki Maxwell moved into the school, MacKenzie was considered the best artist in the school. Everybody raved about how talented she was and all of that. Once Nikki Maxwell arrived, of course, Nikki is an even more talented artist than MacKenzie is. That’s her major bone to pick with Nikki Maxwell, is that all the school is calling her the best artist in the school, which kind of stole the crown from her. The second reason why she doesn’t like Nikki Maxwell is that Nikki and Brandon are good friends, and MacKenzie’s had a crush on Brandon since kindergarten. Those are the two reasons. She’s a mean girl anyway, and a little self-centered, like some of the mean girls that we’ve probably encountered in school. That’s the answer to the question.

Zibby: Got it. Although, in the catacombs, it looked like maybe they were going to be friends for a minute.

Rachel: Exactly. Whenever MacKenzie gets in trouble, she will befriend Nikki Maxwell if that will help her life.

Nikki Russell: Also, in book eleven, the same thing happens there too.

Zibby: Interesting. Book fifteen, they all go to Paris. It’s so exciting. I was edge of my seat waiting, are they going to get asked to be part of this? Is he going to call? Is the music guy going to call them back? Then next thing you know, we have these illustrations. Honestly, it’s breathtaking. Zoe was saying this morning, some of the style of the illustrations of Paris seems to be slightly different than the illustrations for the girls, so wanted to find out about your style and how you decided to do that.

Rachel: I’ll let Nikki answer that.

Zibby: Nikki, go ahead.

Nikki: I feel like since Nikki was headed to Paris, that would be the perfect opportunity for her to learn illustration. Those are the illustrations you’re seeing in the book that are different from Nikki’s style. She decides to take on something different to take her skills to the next level, which is good for any artist to do. It’s always good to refine your skills and your style.

Zibby: Awesome. How did you two pick Paris?

Rachel: It’s kind of a long story, but I will explain it. Nikki and I were planning to go to Paris. As a matter of fact, Nikki wanted to go to Paris very, very badly, so I was like, okay, fine. We’ve been working really hard. We will go to Paris. We started planning it. We also had a book due. We were supposed to be working on a book around the same time that we were going to be going. I’m like, we can take advantage of the situation if we can set book fifteen in Paris. Since we’re going to be in Paris for a couple of weeks and we’re supposed to be working on the book or submitting notes and some of the initial plotlines for book fifteen, if we have Nikki and her friends go to Paris, that will be perfect. That was our plan. However, as life would have it — we were planning to go to Paris in May of 2020. Of course, in May of 2020, COVID was ravaging the world. All international travel had been canceled and whatever. Our trip to Paris got canceled, but we were able to take Nikki Maxwell and her friends to Paris anyway. It turned out well. Not so good for us, but definitely great for Nikki Maxwell and her friends.

Zibby: It’s always nice when we can write where we want to be. Today, I feel like I’d rather be lying on the beach. I’m just going to pretend that I am in my head.

Rachel: In Miami.

Nikki: saving the world right now, in my opinion.

Zibby: It’s so true.

Rachel: The problem was that if we were in Paris, it was going to be a lot easier to write about Paris. I’ve never been to Paris before. I know very little bit about it. Nikki speaks French that she learned in high school and college. After we figured out that we weren’t going to be going to Paris, the book became ten times harder to write because we were going to have to write three hundred pages about a group of people having day-to-day adventures in a city we’ve never been to and know nothing about. Google Images became our friend. That’s how we managed to pull it off. A lot of people think, obviously, you were there. We’re like, no, we did not go.

Zibby: Have you been yet? Did you go recently?

Rachel: No, we have not gone yet.

Zibby: Still no?

Rachel: By the time we finished the book — actually, another complication, it took us several years to . Yeah, we are planning. We were planning to go next year, but the Olympics is going to be scheduled there. If we’re going to go, we have to get there before the Olympics. Otherwise, once the Olympics are there, it’s going to be ten times, a hundred times more people, even. Who knows? It’s going to be not about Paris. It’s going to be about the Olympics. We want to go to visit the city and see the culture versus the Olympics. It would be wonderful. Again, we’re more interested in Paris. We may not go next year unless we can get there before the Olympics.

Zibby: It would be fun if you organized a mother-daughter group trip to Paris where you take everyone to all the sights and everything that you write about in the book.

Rachel: Yes, that would be very cool. Yes, I agree.

Zibby: Like a Dork Diaries abroad.

Rachel: A tour, yes. Nikki in Paris: A Posh Paris Adventure. Our tour could be called the same name as our book.

Zibby: Totally. You can have different ages of kids too. I would go with my mom. That would be fun.

Rachel: That’s a very good idea.

Zibby: Maybe you could do it in time for Mother’s Day. You could do May of 2024. All right, I’ll stop.

Rachel: Yeah, before. I think the Olympics will be in the summer. If we’re going to get there, we have to get there June.

Zibby: May/June. You can plan that when we hang up. That’s fine. Taking things back just a minute away from this book and just to the series in general, obviously, you could not have known the massive explosion the series would become. I’m sure you had a hunch that it was good. The fact that this has become this — it’s like a franchise. It’s a whole brand.

Rachel: When I initially wrote it, I hoped to sell one book. I hoped that it would sell well. I wasn’t even anticipating a million copies. I think they said if the average book for children sells about ten thousand to fifty thousand copies, you’re good. Maybe not necessarily New York Times best-selling, but that’s really good. That was my goal, was one book and maybe fifty thousand copies or a hundred thousand copies if I’m really, really lucky. However, once my literary agent submitted the manuscript and it went to auction, that was my first shock that, oh, my gosh. A book auction is pretty much like a typical auction. Several publishers from different companies are bidding on it. The book is sold to the highest bidder. That’s very, very unusual. It happens maybe several times a year where of all the thousands or tens of thousands of books that are sold every year, only maybe a few of them actually go to auction where publishers are literally fighting over it. That was my first thing. Oh, my gosh, this might be successful. Simon & Schuster won the auction, so the book was sold to Simon & Schuster. The first thing they did was ask for either two or three additional copies, or editions. By the time I signed my contract with Simon & Schuster, it was already a series. Again, I’m like, hmm. Then of course, once they requested several books, I had to get Nikki to basically make being a children’s illustrator her career because for several years, we were going to have to get these two or three books done that they had purchased. Of course, after the first three books, the rest is history, and we end up with all the stuff behind us. Nikki was a teacher at the time.

Zibby: I was going to ask what you were doing before.

Rachel: Do you want to talk about that?

Nikki: I majored in elementary education with a minor in finance. I always had art with me. To begin with, I was a first-grade teacher. I also taught third grade for a little bit. When Mom came and asked for help, that was when I was teaching first grade. I figured it would be two of my favorite things. It would be art, and it would be kids. It’s a win-win. I did resign from teaching. I went into illustrating full time. That’s the way it’s been ever since.

Rachel: Next year will be our fifteenth anniversary. We’ve been working together for fifteen years. It feels like maybe seven or eight, not fifteen.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I would argue you’re still teaching in what you’re doing.

Rachel: Yes.

Nikki: Thank you. That’s a very good way to put it. Absolutely.

Zibby: Just not in a classroom. There are many ways to teach. You don’t fight? Do you guys fight doing this together?

Rachel: No. We have discussions more so than heated arguments or whatever. She tends to correct me on, I would say, pop culture things or what’s in. I was in high school in the seventies, so my idea of what’s cool or whatever is not what is cool. I’ll have Nikki say something, and Nikki will be like, “Nikki Maxwell would not say that, Mom. She was not in high school in ’74.” I’m like, “Oh, okay. What would Nikki Maxwell say?” Nikki is the expert on the pop culture stuff because she’s keeping her finger on that being a lot younger than I am. That’s probably the major thing. Then what else? What else do we disagree on, if at all, or we have discussions about? Can you think of anything else?

Nikki: Since I’m your daughter, there’s always how, when I come to work with a slight cold or a cough or I’m tired —

Rachel: — This is a mother thing.

Nikki: She says, “Go to bed.”

Rachel: Unlike most employees where you have to drag yourself in with 190-degree temperature and whooping cough and rashes or whatever else, if she comes in and she has a sniffle, I’m like, “Nikki, oh, my gosh, you have a fever. Go, go.” She’s like, “Mom, I’m fine.” I’m like, “Home! I’m your boss. Go home.” I’ll get her a little comforter. She has a wonderful studio. It has a couch and kitchenette and all that. I’ll, “No, no, quit working. Just lie here. I’ll get your little Dork Diaries blanket and put it over you. Just relax.” That’s kind of a good problem to have, when your boss is saying, take care of yourself. Take the day off. Here’s some chicken soup.

Zibby: I’m curious about the original inspiration. I know that at the end of every book, you end with, “I am such a dork,” but you two are not — why would you say this?

Rachel: Do you want to talk about being a dork?

Nikki: Growing up, it always wasn’t smooth sailing. Admittedly, I clean up nicely, if you were to view it from the outside. Being a dork is also an inner thing. It’s where you choose to dance from the beat of your own drummer. You choose to do things that might make you stick out, and maybe not in a very good way if you happened across someone like MacKenzie Hollister. I had a MacKenzie Hollister in almost every grade growing up. I had one in elementary school, in middle school, and even high school. Whenever I tried to dress differently or act differently, she would make fun of me and give me a very hard time. In the end, I had to learn to embrace who I was and be positive about it even though she or others like her would always put me down. That’s where I considered being a dork being an inward thing. How you choose to manifest yourself on the outside is completely up to you. I happen to be a girly girl. If I could, I would like to show people that even though you like to dress really glam, you can still be a kindhearted person who does their own thing and is a dork on the inside.

Rachel: She had a very, very hard time in school and was bullied. Her dad is very tall. He’s six foot, maybe four or something. She was always the tallest kid all the way starting in kindergarten. She got teased for that a lot. As a matter of fact, they didn’t quite catch up to her probably until high school when some of the varsity basketball players finally were as tall as she was. She was teased. We usually share this at our book tours because there’s kids that are going through something similar. We were in the car once, and she was like, “Oh, Mom –” We were talking about bullying or physical aggression. She was in the car talking about the time your backpack got kicked.

Nikki: It was a very hard day that day.

Rachel: That was high school, right?

Nikki: Yeah. I actually cried after it. There was this one guy, it started off with him and I arguing because I thought he was being rude. I told him to watch where he was going, and he just started kicking my backpack over and over again. I felt so humiliated.

Rachel: It was around the classroom floor in front of the entire class.

Nikki: The guy behind me said, “This is getting so interesting. I love drama. I need some popcorn,” kind of like that out of the Trolls 3 movie. That literally happened to me. It felt horrible. My teacher, she encouraged me. She gave me a hug and told me that I was special and not to let anybody put me down. That stuck with me. I always remembered that. She saw the good in me and didn’t let it —

Rachel: — In that situation, one guy was physically kicking her backpack around the classroom. Did people laugh, or were they —

Nikki: — Oh, yeah, they were laughing and talking.

Rachel: The teacher stopped it all. You ended up in the hall crying. She looks glam and happy and whatever now, but some of her experiences in especially middle school and high school were not very good. We were able to use it as inspiration to write about it in Dork Diaries and hopefully inspire other kids.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like as a mom, the kids who have, in some way, crossed my kids — this one boy who punched my son at a birthday party for no reason, I will never forgive him, ever. Do you know what I mean? Now this is kid a — I’m like, I don’t forget.

Rachel: Yeah, I know. You may consider forgiving, but you do not forget.

Zibby: Exactly.

Rachel: If there’s any positive that has come out of some of her negative experiences growing up, it’s that we were able to share her experiences with the world and hopefully inspire and encourage other children who are going through that and maybe send a message to those that are bullies or want-to-be bullies.

Zibby: Interesting.

Nikki: We are watching you. You never know a book, a story about you.

Zibby: It’s so true. I know, everything is copy. When you two work together, what is the process like in terms of the writing and the illustrations and the timing? Literally, do you sit next to each other? What comes when?

Rachel: This is my office. Then down the hall through the kitchen and on the other side of the house, Nikki requested that I build her a studio. I bought this house maybe ten years ago. The original owner collected cars, so there’s a six-car garage on the other side of the house. We turned part of it into a master bedroom that’s upstairs. Then the bottom part, the six-car garage, we took three of the garage stalls and turned it into a wonderful studio for Nikki. It’s pink. It has a kitchenette and sofa.

Nikki: You can see me give a tour of it on TikTok .

Rachel: We’re on TikTok now. She did a tour. Anyway, Nikki works on the other side of the house in her art studio. It has a U-shaped glass desk. It’s really gorgeous. Her doll collections are out, and her video games. Her office is a lot nicer. I think my office is nice. Hers is ten times. I don’t have running water and a microwave and all of that. I have to go to the kitchen if I want a snack, whereas she has all this in her office. She has a phenomenal, wonderful studio. She deserves it, which is why I did it. Usually, it takes us about six months to write a book. That’s for the writing and the illustrations. We start with chapter one, obviously. I don’t know if people know, but Nikki Maxwell’s diary is actually one month. Each of the books in back of us are one month. Chapter one is the first day of the month. Chapter two is the second. It goes all the way through. Automatically, there’s usually thirty or thirty-one, depending on what month it is, chapters in the book. I start with the first day of the month. I’ll write whatever is happening. Then I’ll write art instructions to Nikki. Say, if they’re at the breakfast table and Brianna and Nikki are fighting over the jelly or something like that and then Brianna accidentally ends up dumping it in her lap and the bus is coming and all that, that will be my first chapter. Then I’ll write art instructions. Please illustrate this, this, this, and that. Then I give it to Nikki.

Each chapter has maybe six to eight illustrations in it. She does the illustrations and sends them back to me. Even now fifteen years into the process, my mind’s always blown. It’s so phenomenal to open up the file and see Brianna and Nikki arguing. The mother is looking frustrated. All of a sudden, the jelly is all over. It’s wonderful, wonderful. Inevitably, I take the draft I’ve written, basically get rid of it, and rewrite the whole thing based on these wonderful images that I now have in my head that Nikki gave me. I send it back to her with a more polished draft. Then she makes, by that time, probably very, very minor edits. Maybe we want more jelly. Maybe Mom has jelly on her too in addition to the girls or whatever. We just go back and forth like that. Then when we get done with the first day of the month, then we go to the second until we did the entire month. We just go back and forth. That’s kind of the process. I give her a draft of the chapter with art instructions. She sends it back to me. Then I inevitably make a polished, much, much more interesting, funny chapter based on her illustrations. Then there’s very, very minor — then we’re done and . Is that basically it?

Nikki: We work off of each other.

Zibby: When you’re doing your illustrations, Nikki, is it on a computer? Do you draw anything by hand? What is your process? Do you have a big drafting table?

Nikki: I do, yes. I draw by hand to begin with. I’ll sketch something out because it goes a lot faster that way. Then I scan it into the computer. That’s how I ink it and refine it on Photoshop. That also makes it easier to send off via email.

Rachel: You work on — what’s that big expensive computer that I had to buy you?

Nikki: A Wacom tablet. It lives on a Wacom tablet.

Rachel: It’s a version that I think Pixar and DreamWorks use.

Zibby: Oh, wow.

Rachel: I’m like, if it’s good enough for them, then yes, it’s good enough . She has a humungous Wacom tablet, drafting table and a Wacom tablet. Again, if you look at her tour on TikTok, she shows all that.

Zibby: I’m sorry, I don’t go on TikTok hardly ever, but I know I need to be over there. I will go check it out.

Rachel: We will send you a link. Maybe we’ll send you a link just so you can see the tour.

Zibby: Yes, I will go on now that I know it’s there. I feel like I never know what to do on TikTok.

Rachel: Yeah, I know. We felt the same way. I won’t even get into that. Nikki was like, let’s do this. I’m like, number one, I don’t get it. Number two, it’s not long enough, fifteen seconds, thirty seconds. We had book fifteen coming out. Of course, we want to market it. I’m like, I’ll try anything that’s going to help sell the book. We did a one-minute, fifty-second video just saying, “Hi, I’m Rachel. She’s Nikki. We’re the author of Dork Diaries. We have a new book coming out,” blah, blah, blah. I thought if we get a hundred views, I’ll be happy. It went viral. It currently has five million views.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Rachel: I know. I’m like, beginner’s luck. Definitely, beginner’s luck. Then Nikki did a really, really silly video where — sometimes you lip-synch off of — this is what young kids are doing. You just lip-synch off of something. I’m like, no way. Beginner’s luck. You’ll be lucky if you get a hundred views. 1.7 million.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness, look at you.

Rachel: We’ve done our videos that did not do millions and millions. We were very shocked. We have a lot of fans on TikTok, apparently. It went well.

Zibby: How do people find you on TikTok? What’s your name on TikTok? Do you know?

Rachel: It is Rachel Renée Russell, @dorkdiaries. It has the little blue check because there’s all kinds of Dork Diaries. Dork Diaries Lover, Dork Diaries Girl, whatever. Officially, it’s Rachel Renée Russell and @dorkdiaries. It will have a little blue checkmark on the @dorkdiaries because it’s the real deal.

Zibby: Okay, so now everybody can find it. Excellent. Where do you see the characters going? What’s going to happen with Nikki? How long can you — is Nikki going to grow up and have kids one day? Where are we going with this?

Rachel: The weird thing about TikTok is there are young people there, but a lot of them are older. Not older as in my age or your age, but older as in twenty to thirty. I was very, very shocked when I kept getting posts and comments about, you raised me. Dork Diaries raised me. I’ve been reading it for fourteen years. I’m like, we’ve been writing it for fourteen years at this point. Next year will be the fifteenth year. On TikTok, we found all of our Dork Diaries fans that had started reading in 2009. Now they’re graduating from college and getting married. Some of them are having their first child. It was just totally, totally amazing. It was wonderful being able to hear from our adult fans now. That was the best thing about TikTok so far. We know younger kids read it, but to hear from the older kids is .

Zibby: Do the older kids want Nikki and MacKenzie and everybody to age? Zoe?

Rachel: Again, it’s been fourteen years, but each book is one month in her life. Technically, it’s fourteen years for us, but it’s only fourteen months for Nikki Maxwell. She is going into high school in book sixteen. We’ve aged her a little bit. That’s the weird thing. Each of the diaries back here is one month of her life. Time moves very, very, very slowly for her. Since it’s been a year, she is going into the next year of school. She’ll be in high school next year. We have had people that say, much like the main character in Princess Diaries that ended up graduating from high school and getting married and whatever — we’re kind of thinking about it. Right now, we’re just getting her into high school.

Zibby: Wow. Have you ever met anyone and you’re like, oh, my gosh, you’re exactly what we imagine Nikki to be in real life?

Rachel: Yes. We’ve had Nikki Maxwell. I think we’ve met a couple of MacKenzies, in a good way. They’re just very beautiful blonds that look like MacKenzie. Of course, we’ve had Brandons too.

Nikki: Yes, we have. The most wonderful and ironic experience was when we were in Scarsdale, New York. That’s literally Westchester County territory. We met an older fan there who reminded us so much of Nikki Maxwell when she’s grown up. It was wonderful. She had the shoulder-length brown hair. She was kind. She was friendly and outgoing. She had the most beautiful smile.

Rachel: Wasn’t her name Nikki too?

Nikki: Nicole.

Rachel: Nicole, or Nikki, yeah. She said growing up, all of her life, I guess people had told her that she reminded them of the character. You’re right. That was just three or four weeks ago we met her. Of all of our entire career, the most Nikki Maxwell that we’ve met was this — and her name is Nikki.

Zibby: Rachel and Nikki, thank you for coming on. Thank you for all the hours of joy and entertainment and inspiration you’ve given millions of readers. It’s really amazing. You make books so relevant. This is why people read. This is why people write. It’s exciting.

Rachel: Thank you. What are our stats now? I think we’re at fifty-five million copies sold. We’re in fifty-three countries and fifty languages. It’s all fifties. I think fifty languages, fifty-three countries, and then around fifty-five million sold so far.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You just keep it up.

Rachel: We’re very, very proud. We’re happy.

Nikki: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s great to meet you. Thank you so much.

Nikki: Great to meet you too, Zibby. Thanks for having us.

Rachel: Thank you so much. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Nikki: Bye.

DORK DIARIES 15: Tales from a Not-So-Posh Paris Adventure by Rachel Renée Russell

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