Author extols the virtues of dorkiness

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OMG!!! Have you seen that new girl in school? She wears clothes from stores that sell lawn mowers and her dad drives around in a truck with a cockroach on top. What a dork! If that were me, my life would be, like, TOTALLY RUINED!!!

Rachel Renee Russell channels her inner tween in "Dork Diaries," a lighthearted six-book series about eighth-grader Nikki Maxwell. The New York Times best-selling series has sold more than 10 million copies and has been translated into 36 languages.

Rachel Renee Russell

Presented by: Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Kids and Teens program.

Where: Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $10 adults; $5 children; free for age 3 and younger. 412-622-8866, or at the door.

Ms. Russell will speak Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland as part of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Kids and Teens series. The event will include a popcorn bar and a book signing.

Told in the diary style popularized by Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series, "Dork Diaries" is full of illustrations, tween slang, emoticons, exclamation marks and words in all caps. The books have clear appeal to tween girls, but there's plenty of sly irony for parents to enjoy as well. She gets the tween diary with all of its drama pitch-perfect.

In the first book, "Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life," Nikki Maxwell is a new student at an expensive private school, Westchester Country Day. Nikki is not like the wealthy kids there. Her father is the school's exterminator, who has obtained a scholarship for her.

Nikki will never be one of the CCP (cute, cool and popular) kids. She's horrible at sports and -- worse -- she's the only kid without a mobile phone and doesn't wear designer clothes. Add to the fact that she prefers writing in her diary and constantly trips into garbage cans and you get the picture: Nikki is doomed to dorkiness.

Being a dork can be a good thing, Ms. Russell said.

"Basically, a dork is a person who marches to the beat of their own drummer, and they're comfortable with being different. A dork is an independent thinker who's very creative and comfortable in their own skin even though society doesn't let them feel comfortable," she said via phone from her home in Northern Virginia.

Each book sends the message that it's OK to be a dork. Why be popular when you can be interesting? Ms. Russell repeats the mantra: "Always let your inner dork shine through!"

She identifies herself as a dork who follows her own quirky path. After working for years as a bankruptcy lawyer, Ms. Russell turned to writing children's literature after her two daughters, Nikki and Erin, left home for college. As a child, Ms. Russell kept a diary and was a fan of other diary-themed books such as "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Harriet the Spy." As an adult, she loved Meg Cabot's "The Princess Diaries."

Her daughters inspired her to write "The Dork Diaries."

"My daughters were very dorky. They didn't get invited to parties, and kids picked on them," Ms. Russell said. "I wondered if other parents were going through that type of thing."

Each book features Nikki Maxwell's struggle to accept herself, all the while dealing with bully Mackenzie Hollister, a "shark in lipstick, skinny jeans and platform heels." Mackenzie goes to great lengths to embarrass Nikki, including uploading embarrassing videos of her dancing onto YouTube and disqualifying her from a contest. Mackenzie knows that Nikki's father is an exterminator and repeatedly threatens to reveal her secret.

Never fear; there's character growth amid all the drama. In the sixth and latest book, "Tales From a Not-So-Happy Heartbreaker," Nikki receives hurtful text messages from her crush, Brandon, only to discover they're really from Mackenzie, who tries to sabotage the romance.

Even though Nikki often proclaims: "I can only be myself, right? I'M SUCH A DORK!" there's uncertainty about just how wonderful dorkiness is in middle school. Should you be true to yourself and risk being a dork or fall in line so you can belong to the popular group? Nikki is on a journey to accept herself and be a good friend to others. Her diary and her BFFs, Chloe and Zoey, provide much-needed comfort.

"Nikki is a normal person who has insecurities. I want kids to relate to her. She's imperfect; there's still things she's trying to work through," Ms. Russell said.

The author works closely with her daughters on the books. Nikki illustrates, and Erin helps with the writing. Nikki's illustrations are playful and sweet; their supersized eyes and expressive faces are clearly influenced by Japanese manga.

Her daughters will accompany her to Pittsburgh.

"My fans love my daughters," Ms. Russell said. "Erin and Nikki were dorks and were bullied, and now they look like Hollywood starlets. Fans see themselves and their future, and how bright and pretty and dorky they are, and they relate to that. It just makes girls happy."

Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh.

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