I may have sold my soul for this reading challenge.
Because the Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell is a popular item among middle schoolers at my library, I decided to check it out. Next time, I should aim much, much higher.
This post isn’t any slam to Russell. (Not intentionally.) It’s a request to make fictional female diaries—even the children’s diaries, and even the ones (all of them) that are clearly written by adults—at least a little more eloquent.
Let me begin where I first started seeing problems: page one or so.
Nikki, the hero of Dork Diaries, is a self-absorbed, shallow fourteen-year-old. Little of this changes in the book, and hell no am I reading the rest of the series. After moving to a new school, Nikki quickly becomes obsessed with being accepted by the popular girls. This is where I first groaned in agony.
Does every middle and high school novel/movie have to star someone who’s trying to be accepted by the in-crowd? In a hypothetical school of four hundred, five people don’t make as big a difference as these fantasies will have you believe. Take it from an actual former high school loner: when the hero/heroine is surrounded by so many other bodies in school, problems with the popular crowd, and only them, aren’t that important. There are so many other social groups; Mean Girls and one drawing in Dork Diaries mention this. In reality and the background of a plot, the popular crowd is dwarfed by the other social options in your typical school.
To top it off, Nikki’s obsession with the popular girl, MacKenzie, is borderline creepy. Nikki mentions MacKenzie, who she hates, more often than her new friends, her crush, or her family. It’s clear from the beginning MacKenzie isn’t worth anyone’s time because of her unhidden cruelty and self-absorption mildly masked with materialism and poorly performed confidence. I’d rather hear this story from MacKenzie’s point of view because she’s clearly on the path to having some kind of narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, but no. I have to sit through Nikki’s underdog story from someone with little personality.
I often found it hard to believe this was supposed to be written by a fourteen-year-old based on this content because it read like it was written by a twelve-year-old. (There’s a big difference. There should be.) Then again, I took back this assumption when it became clear Nikki knows “big words” like principality. I also took my own teen diary into consideration and realized, yes, teens really are this self-absorbed. Let me give you some examples:
- Nikki blames her own faults and actions on others
- Nikki has no consideration for her younger sister and lashes out because she believes her petty personal problems (which she hasn’t told anyone about) are more important than her family
- the best friends, Chloe and Zoey, make the decision to do something impossible and greedy when they’re disciplined by their parents for something they wouldn’t have been able to have anyway
The book is also filled with clichés, such as tripping in the lunchroom, having a crush on a nice boy, hiding yourself under cheap make-up, and many other classics!
What was good about Dork Diaries? The illustrations were witty and cute. This whole book could have been a great graphic novel. I would have preferred to watch events unfold from the outside, with this art style, rather than have to live inside the asinine heroine’s vapid, big head. There are also some very telling moments about the self-esteem of young teens, such as Nikki’s need to have the latest accessories, the need for friends when moving to a new school, and MacKenzie’s subtle affliction when it comes to her own appearance and desperation to retain her school royalty. For this reason, I WOULD NOT recommend this to kids, but I would recommend it to adults who have forgotten what those hormones did to your thought process. The text’s font combined with the constant black-and-white lines and Nikki’s aversion to narrative quality made my brain buzz for a while.
Why did I continue reading, then? I wanted to see if Nikki would learn something and if the cliché plot points would end in cliché ways. She did not, and they did.
Dork Diaries reminded me of its predecessor, Melissa Moss’ Amelia diaries. In a bit of nostalgia today, I cracked open one of these. You know what was on the first page?
If you want a good friend, you must be a good friend.
In one measly sentence, Moss trumps Russell. Most of Nikki’s entries about her two friends are negative because Nikki spends most of her energy on stalking MacKenzie. Amelia does have friend drama, but Amelia tends to care about her friends, whereas Nikki doesn’t until Chloe and Zoey help her win a contest.
Apparently diaries are a trend. So are secret lives and confessions. I’m tired of seeing these phrases on all ages of fiction. If these stories are completely made up, why pretend they’re any different from other novels by slapping those labels on them?
I may have been spoiling myself before reading Dork Diaries. I just finished Chris Rylander’s The Fourth Stall and the first instalment of Kick-Ass. Both of these feature a mostly male cast, so I should look for a decent female cast to compare. In The Fourth Stall, the main character doesn’t even pretend he’s not anything special, yet he knows how to act like a normal guy. In Kick-Ass, the main character stops whining when he decides to go kick some ass.
Mindy McCready, who hasn’t even reached puberty in Kick-Ass, has more depth than Russell’s Nikki. But then, Hit-Girl is one of a kind. Is it so hard to ask for that? Authors, if you want your protagonist to be a typical girl, allow her to be just that. Don’t force her to pine for the abnormal occurrence that will never happen; make her go out and get it! If you want your female protagonist to be extraordinary, allow her to either own it or discover it without trying to be something she’s not. If your character is supposed to be a dork, let her have more fun with her dorky self.
And please, please, please give me more than materialism from the diaries of these budding young women (and budding grown women). If you want your hero to be relatable, give her depth rather than allow your own fantasy schoolyard drama approach to skew the friendship, humor, and intelligence you want your readers to have.
Have you read any of these books?