Rachel Renée Russell, who has entertained middle-grade readers with the adventures of Nikki Maxwell since the 2009 debut of her Dork Diaries series, introduces another kid navigating the choppy waters of middle school in The Misadventures of Max Crumbly: Locker Hero. Previously homeschooled by his grandmother, superhero comics-loving Max Crumbly finds South Ridge Middle School (which Nikki Maxwell also attends) a scary place, due in no small part to the school bully’s penchant for stuffing Max in his locker. Due June 7 from S&S/Aladdin with a 500,000-copy first printing, this series launch has the same illustrated journal format as the Dork Diaries series, which boasts a worldwide in-print tally of more than 25 million copies. Russell, an attorney who now prefers creating novels to practicing law, spoke with PW about her new series and the collaborators with whom she works in her Virginia home office.
Your new protagonist’s name is an attention-grabber – it’s difficult to say “Max Crumbly” without smiling.
Good – that means I’ve achieved what I set out to do! I wanted this character to have an interesting name that reflects his complaints about his life, and middle school in particular. To Max, it’s all kind of crummy, and his last name is a pun that plays on that.
Did Max Crumbly have a real-life model?
Actually, Max was inspired by my nephew, Preston James, whose mom, Kim James, is my manager. Not long ago, when they visited me, Preston – oh my gosh – never stopped! He’s very interested in superheroes and comic books, and is very rambunctious. He has big green plastic Hulk fists, and loved punching the walls of my house. He also loved sliding down the bannister, and when I saw him in his superhero cape, looking over the edge of my deck with interest, I said, “Preston, no!” He’s not in middle school yet – he’s only seven – but Preston was definitely my inspiration for Max. In fact, I dedicated the first novel to him.
Is Preston the first family member who helped fuel your fiction?
No, he’s not! My daughters, Erin and Nikki, inspired Dork Diaries. They are now in their late 20s, but when they were in middle and high school, they were teased – sometimes really to the level of bullied – and would spend lunchtime hiding out in the library. It was an unpleasant situation, and ultimately I transferred them to a smaller, warmer high school where the kids were nicer. And they ended up fitting in well and participating in lots of activities. I came up with the Dork Diaries’ message, “Always remember to let your inner Dork shine through!” knowing that when my daughters did that, they were able to accomplish many positive things.
Apparently they continue to do so, given that they are now co-creators of the Dork Diaries novels as well as The Misadventures of Max Crumbly: Locker Hero.
Yes, Erin, Nikki, and I have been working as a team since the third Dork Diaries book in 2011. Now, Nikki creates all of the illustrations for the novels, and Erin helps me with the writing. Erin was working in mortgage banking, and Nikki was an elementary school teacher, and I talked them both into quitting their jobs and working with me full-time.
Do you actually work together, face-to-face?
We do. I renovated my house to create a humongous office – we like to call it the West Wing! Erin and Nikki both arrive at the house every day, and we work together closely. Nikki has turned part of the office into an art studio, and Erin likes working in one of the bedrooms. She’ll head upstairs, fluff up the pillows, plop on a bed, and begin writing.
How do the writing and illustrating components of your collaborative process work?
Usually I’ll sit down and come up with the theme of a book and major plot elements. And then I will assign Erin chapters to write. She has created some very funny, over-the-top adult characters, including a pot-bellied karate instructor who eats burgers during class and a diva-ish, famous ice skater who comes to town to host a charity skating event. Another one of Erin’s strong points is writing the character of Brianna, Nikki Maxwell’s younger sister.
And once we have a first draft of a chapter finished, I’ll give Nikki some illustration ideas, and she creates the art. Once her illustrations come in, the chapter is apt to completely change, since the art becomes the motivating force. Erin and I begin rewriting and editing, which is a part of the process I really love. I have a wonderful time rewriting.
Did you have any trouble shifting your creative focus from Nikki Maxwell to Max Crumbly?
I’d say the biggest challenge was getting into the male mind. If I had raised a son, it might have been a different experience for me to write from the perspective of a boy. And I had to tone down things a bit, since Max isn’t as dramatic as Nikki Maxwell, who is a kind of “The sky is falling!” ranter. But I discovered that writing for these two characters was in many ways similar. Even though they are very different people, they have the same struggles – with school, family, friends, crushes. They are both trying to fit in and discover who they really are.
Given the success of Dork Diaries, the series’ mantra about letting one’s inner Dork shine through obviously strikes a chord with young readers. Does the Misadventures of Max Crumbly have an analogous tagline?
I think it’s a wonderful thing that kids can relate to and are inspired by that Dork Diaries message. We’ve had so many kids tells us that they were feeling down and sad, but reading about Nikki Maxwell helped them realize that they are creative and they are cool. They don’t have to sit at the popular table at lunch or be a cheerleader: they can become confident in who they are. I’m very happy with the underlying message we came up with for Max Crumbly: “Be the hero you’ve always admired!” In the end, Max does become a hero, and I hope that readers will also find that inspiring.
And what’s next in store for Max?
That we are still figuring out. Erin, Nikki, and I are going on vacation for a week, and when we come back we’ll dive into the second book, The Misadventures of Max Crumbly: Middle School Mayhem. And we have the 11th Dork Diaries book coming out in October – so we have a lot of work ahead. But I know we’ll make it happen. We are a great team – and I’m a very lucky mom!
The Misadventures of Max Crumbly: Locker Hero by Rachel Renée Russell with Nikki Russell and Erin Russell. S&S/Aladdin, $13.99 June ISBN 978-1-4814-6001-9