Amy Ignatow's Popularity Papers Series. I was drawn to her illustrations at first, but came away with a deep appreciation for her story telling abilities. Reading one of the books in her series is like having a great meal, an excellent talk with a very good friend, and a really nice walk on the beach all in one. Her wonderful illustrations, which alternate between the skillful but slightly childlike art by Julie Graham-Chang and the stick-figure funny business of Lydia Goldblatt, draw me in immediately, but it is the finely crafted, emotionally resonating stories that make me sit back in awe after I finish reading. With The Popularity Papers: The Rocky Road Trip of Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang, book four in the series, Ignatow does some of her best writing to date. Please, I know from watching and talking to parents at the bookstore that some of you are skeptical about the quality of writing and/or value of a book of this nature (meaning fully, gloriously illustrated) which, by its very nature costs more, but I urge you to buy this series for your daughters and know that you are giving them something really wonderful and inspirational.
Julie and Lydia, who began writing the Popularity Papers as a way for them to observe, document and then copy the popular girls in an effort to become popular themselves, find themselves at the end of the year and the start of summer break. When Ms Goldblatt learns she has to return to England (see book two, The Long Distance Dispatch Between Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang) and Melody Goldblatt heads off to Guatemala with Habitat for Humanity, Lydia gets to choose between spending the month in London or taking a road trip with the Graham-Changs. Lydia makes her choice and the quartet find themselves flying out to California where they will help Nana and Grandpa Jim, Papa-Dad's parents, move from San Francisco to a new home in Half Moon Bay, then on to three more stops as they drive back to Pennsylvania to visit more family members, including Lydia's father. Ignatow finds the perfect balance between road tripping, seeing the sights (Julie has drawings for each state with titles like, "What it's like to drive down the Pacific Coast," "What it's like to drive through Ohio, Indiana, New Mexico and so on) getting a big dose of travel trivia from Papa Dad and family issues that come up when visiting relatives
The girls get to visit their friend Sukie and hang out in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate park as well as eat the best burritos EVER in the mission district (names, please??) and experience an earthquake, but they both also have some difficult interactions with adults that Ignatow handles with grace, empathy and honesty. Lydia gets dropped off at her father's home in Pueblo, CO, while the Graham-Changs spend a couple of days with friends in Denver. She hasn't seen her father in the few years since he divorced their mother and married his new wife, who has two sons. The last time they visited, Lydia's stepmother tried to dress her up like a doll and Melody became very angry, cutting the visit short. While Lydia gets more, not always great, attention from her stepmother during her visit, her stepbrothers are uninterested in her and often rude and her father is almost non-present. When Lydia works up the courage to ask if they can spend time together, meaning alone, he says that they "have been together every day." Confused and hurt, Lydia acts out by dying her hair blue with some of the Kool-Aid that Brenna serves while everyone else is asleep. Lydia had wanted to have her nails painted blue when Brenna took her for a manicure, but her stepmother insisted she choose pink. Because this story is told completely in their own words, Ignatow doesn't have to make a big deal of the big deals, because kids don't usually when they are retelling a difficult emotional experience. Lydia is scared she's in really big trouble and, unable to sleep, shoots off an email to her sister (who seems to be developing into a very complex, thoughtful young lady as this series progresses - can't wait to see more of Melody in book 5) and gets the sheets and towels all blue as she waits for morning. Her father is furious, upset that she seems to be flying the same freak flag as Melody, who has piercings and dyed hair, and calls her mother in London to rant, never saying much to Lydia herself.
The arrival of the Graham-Changs later that morning as they head to St Louis to visit Mah Mah and Yeh Yeh, Daddy's parents who immigrated from China before he and his sister were born, bring more family tension. While telling bad jokes and insisting the girls learn all the lyrics to "American Pie," which, as Julie notes, "is not even about pie. Unfair," they all talk a bit about Lydia's experience. When they reach St Louis, the girls soon realize that Lydia isn't the only one with parent problems. Ignatow handles, has handled in the three previous books, the fact that Julie's parents are two gay men with tact and as little commotion or fanfare as you would hope a minority group seeking equality would want. They just are, as we all are. The most that Julie says about what she knows of the situation is that Mah Mah and Yeh Yeh "wanted Daddy to marry a woman and they do not approve of Papa Dad and won't have him in their house. They kind of ignore him and have never been to visit us." They meet up for dinner in a restaurant where Mah Mah remains silent and Yeh Yeh talks endlessly about Christina, Daddy's sister, her good job and amazing baby. The next day, Daddy visits with his parents by himself and the girls are aware that Papa Dad is feeling low. They even try to cheer him up with travel trivia. Lydia discusses the situation with Melody in an email, making a connection between the different kinds of fathers. Later, while Julie is drawing and Papa Dad is watching, Lydia and Julie's Dad have a talk about families, and he says something so succinct and simple, something I have struggled to accept and understand most of my adult life, when Lydia asks him why he continues to stay in touch with his parents. Again, Amy Ignatow dazzles with the artwork but really knocks you over with her writing. I'm sure this means more to me as an adult reader, but still, if even this one tiny bit sticks with kids and helps them to be more understanding and accepting of their family members, it is worth gold.
As I said at the start of this review, I really think these books are invaluable to young (girl) readers for many reasons. And, while I didn't discuss too much of it, The Popularity Papers: The Rocky Road Trip of Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang, made me laugh out loud a lot. There is Julie's Uncle Nate who tells the "interrupting cow" knock-knock joke in as many different ways as possible, naming the car, Papa Dad and, most happily, Bad Cat makes a brief, very funny, appearance. I am sure Amy Ignatow has other fantastic ideas rolling around in her brilliant brain, but please, PLEASE give us a few more books in the Popularity Papers Series!