I wish The Popularity Papers was around when I was in 5th or 6th grade. I needed Lydia and Julie to help me figure out how to be popular, what it meant to be popular, why you didn't really need to be popular and, most importantly, how to be a good friend. All by trial and error, of course. On top of that, the illustrations in the book would have been an awesome inspiration to me at a very impressionable and artistic age.
I'll be honest - I was put off by the title of Amy Ignatow's book when it first hit the shelves. The title, along with the (less than ideal) popularity of the Wimpy Kid books made me skeptical that an author could pull off the feat of writing and illustrating a book that captures the voices and experiences of pre-teens in a genuine way while at the same time making it completely visually entertaining and impossible to put down. But, a review of The Popularity Papers: Research for the Social Improvement and General Betterment of Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham- Chang changed my mind. Amy Ignatow's book brilliantly captures and illuminates the world of Lydia and Julie in a thoughtful and funny way that is hard to put down.
The research team of the title is made up of Lydia, Editor-in-Chief, Co-author and Lead Experiment Dictator and Julie, Associate Editor, Co-author, Illustrator and Recorder. As Lydia and Julie state, they have one whole year before starting junior high and, based on their observations of Melody, Lydia's older sister, "a lot can change between elementary school and junior high." If change is going to happen, these girls want it to be for the better and decide to observe the popular girls in their class, take notes and try to be more like them in an effort to improve their social standing. Because Lydia is braver, she will be the guinea pig and Julie, the artist with better handwriting, will be the observer and note taker.
Things don't go so well, at first. When the Julie and Lydia notice that one of the popular girls has a blonde streak in her hair, they decide to try to give Lydia a streak. Unsure of how to achieve this, the girls ask Melody, who tells them that people use bleach to make their hair lighter. The girls think she means the kind of bleach used for cleaning and end up frying Lydia's hair and leaving a bald spot behind. Other attempts at doing what the popular girls do include obtaining a hobby (Sukie Thomas knits) and adopting a new dress style (Jane "always looks really girly) and a crazy scheme to trick their parents into getting them cell phones like the rest of the popular kids. This means going over to the house of a friend (a new friend whose parents don't have their parents' phone numbers) after school and NOT informing them. Their parents will worry and realize that the girls really do need cell phones. Of course the plan backfires, and in very funny ways, and punishment ensues.
Julie writes "sorry" haikus, among other punishments that include polishing silver and being given a very old, beat up cell phone for future emergency use. Ignatow finds a way of making Lydia and Julie's parents seem perfectly typical and also somewhat unique at the same time. Mrs Goldblatt is a single parent and money is tight. Julie has two dads, Papa Dad and Daddy, who are involved, engaged parents who always find a way to make a joke. Whether it is taking the girls to the yarn shop to pursue their new hobby - after making them swear not to abandon it after two days like they did with the telescope, aquarium and electric keyboard - laying down the rules for the internet or taking the girls out for ice cream after a field hockey game, they are a strong presence in Julie's life and the book and it is clear that both of the girls feel comfortable talking to their parents and eve asking them for advice. One of my (many) favorite parts of The Popularity Papers comes when Lydia asks her mom and sister and Julie's dads what song she should sing for her audition for the school musical. I'm not sure if kids reading the book will get the jokes, but parents will.
A few twists and turns in the story mean that Lydia takes over observing and recording duties for a while and the tone of the book changes a bit, giving the reader a chance to know the girls even better as two unique characters. As Barbra Feinberg says in her review, Ignatow uses her considerable skill to create two distinct characters in Julie and Lydia, mostly through their "very distinct prose and drawing styles, and also their different handwriting (Lydia’s is a loopy blue script, whereas Julie’s is a firm, confident black print)."
The girls even go through a brief period of not speaking to each other after Lydia betrays Julie in her
quest to be part of the in group. Lydia struggles with what she has done and how she can repair things, getting some good advice from some people who are not part of the popular crowd along the way. Turning the story back over to Julie, the book ends with several pages of her observations of things she has learned during the weeks that she and Lydia were not speaking to each other. The list is great, and wonderfully illustrated and includes the important ability to laugh at herself and go along with a joke sometimes. When the girls learn that Melody hangs out at a yarn store knitting with "a bunch of old-lady knitters" and not sitting in her room "being angry at the world," she imparts an important piece of wisdom on Julie and Lydia that ends the book. She tells them that "your friends should be the coolest people you know." "Well, duh." Julie writes. Obvious, but not obvious, and the dualities of this are exactly what Ignatow explores in her superb new book.
I am VERY happy to tell you that Amy is working on another book starring Lydia and Julie and, no doubt, a few new characters. I can't wait to read it! And, in one last tidbit, public radio junkies like me may remember the great show Day to Day that was cancelled in 2009. As the end of their time on the air neared, they ran stories from listeners about significant farewells they had made or were facing and Amy Ignatow was one of those listeners who had her story aired! She spoke about losing a teaching job and deciding to work full time on her book (yes, Popularity Papers!) and how that lead to a 2 book deal and the chance to say goodbye to her crummy apartment.
Readers who are hungry for more visually compelling diary-like stories should be sure to read Marissa Moss' Amelia's Notebook series and Tom Angleberger's The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, which Feinberg also discusses in her review.