Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life, Rachel Renee Russell's debut, is an illustrated novel sure to appeal to tweens. When Nikki Maxwell transfers to a new school in eighth grade, her mother gives her a diary. Even though Nikki thinks it's dorky and she'd really rather have a cell phone, she starts writing in the diary. She surprises herself with how much she likes journaling, and she decorates her entries with her artwork (also drawn by the auhor).
Nikki's new school, Westchester Country Day, is a private school. Her first impression of her classmates: they are all cooler and wealthier than she is, with their brand name clothing and electronics, while she's only there because her father, a bug exterminator, got a contract with the school. She feels as though she's invisible to her classmates, especially the CC&P (Cute, Cool, and Popular) crowd. Happily, she finds friends in Zoey and Chloe. Even better, her desires for popularity and the latest gadgets fade over the course of the book. Yes, she does complain about her life being unfair or horrible at times, but that is simply keeping in the voice of a middle school narrator. She sounds more content as the book goes on and she becomes more comfortable with herself and her new surroundings.
Nikki has her good days and bad days, that's for sure. She sometimes feels embarrassed by her parents, and other times, she embarrasses herself in front of her classmates and her crush, Brandon. She gets stung by the words of super popular MacKenzie, who unfortunately has the locker next to hers. She really wants to enter the school art contest, but her confidence in her abilities depends on her mood. While she loves hanging out with her friends, she likes being alone every now and then, to daydream or draw or sulk or shout. Readers will easily ride the waves with Nikki, because all of these happenings will be completely familiar to anyone who has ever had to endure the drama of middle school.
I was pleased by the book's inclusion of the school library. The girls do their school service there. In the beginning, Nikki kind of thinks it's boring. Later on, when the librarian, Mrs. Peach, announces her plan to take six of her most committed assistants on a three-day trip to New York City to celebrate National Library Week, Chloe and Zoey freak out. Initially, Nikki doesn't share her friends' interest in this event, but once they find a way to combine Nikki's artistic talents with a book drive, she's totally on board. Soon, though, she feels like she's doing the majority of the work, and she gets really upset - until her friends find a way to show her their appreciation.
This book really looks like a diary, with lined pages, almost-daily entries in a font that looks like handwriting, and adorable black-and-white sketches throughout. The books-in-print page credits the design to Lisa Vega and names the font: Skippy Sharp. Russell's drawings are manga-Americana-cute, and it's neat to see Nikki's drawings of her friends, her family, her crush, and herself. The art on the cover of the book - which is reappears inside - reveals that Nikki is left-handed! My favorite illustrations appear on pages 26, 30, 214, and 220. Please note that these are the page numbers from the advance reviewer copy. Pagination may have changed in the final version.
One of my favorite supporting characters is Nikki's energetic and curious younger sister Brianna. I think she would totally get along with Tammy from Why I Let My Hair Grow Out and How I Found the Perfect Dress by Maryrose Wood. I also liked her break-dancing, Price-is-Right-addicted grandmother, who encouraged Nikki to tackle challenges head-on rather than shy away from them.
If you're giving Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney to elementary school readers and So Punk Rock (and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother) by Micol and David Ostow to teens, then make sure to give Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life by Rachel Renee Russell to your middle schoolers. Pair it with Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf by Jennifer L. Holm, Elicia Castaldi, and Matthew Holm, and you'll be all set!