There are good and bad results that occur when a book like "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" hits the stratosphere. On the one hand, suddenly publishers are a lot more open-minded about breathing life into books that mix text and images in new and unique ways. The door opens a little wider for unconventional titles that straddle a variety of writing genres and styles and (normally) don't win any literary awards. That's the good. The bad thing is that as a result any book that tries to make any headway in the market using pictures as well as text (and PARTICULARLY if it has a diary/journal format) is on some level going to be slapped with a "Diary of a Wimpy Kid Wannabe" label by the critics out there unwilling to read it closely. Did I judge "The Popularity Papers" by Amy Ignatow too harshly when I glanced at its cover for the first time? Absolutely. But I flipped it over to peruse the back and found, to my utter amazement and downright shock, that the picture there had me laughing out loud. From out of nowhere! Without another thought I checked it out of my library and read it that night in a single sitting. Funny is hard. Funny in a journal format is harder. And funny in a journal format with a plot that not only tracks but also kinda makes you feel for the characters? Let's just say that this Amy Ignatow woman is a force to be reckoned with.
Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang are two smart cookies. Some girls going into their last year before middle school would confront the enigma of popularity by either moaning or changing themselves beyond all recognition. Lydia and Julie have a much better plan. First, they have this notebook where Julie (the artistic one) can record their observations. The mission? To stealthily watch all the popular girls they know so as to best determine how to someday be popular themselves. Lydia (the brave one) will subject herself to rigorous testing, whether it involves bleaching off a chunk of her hair or joining an eskrima class (otherwise known as stick fighting). Along the way they attempt to finagle cell phones out of their parental units (with unfortunate results), deal with a Norwegian crush, and have a falling out that may or may not put an end to their friendship. Being popular may be tough but attaining it? Hilarious.
I'll get to the sheer unique humor of the book in a second, but first I want to give full credit to the storytelling. The other day a writer asked me, "What is it about a female character that makes you want to like them?" I responded the usual answers of "a sense of humor" and "empathy" but it's a tough question. Why do people connect so directly with the characters in the Harry Potter series, but don't feel as touched by other fantasy folks? In the case of this particular book, I was amazed by how quickly I felt affection for our two main characters. Admittedly, I felt closer to Julie for most of the book, but Lydia was someone I could definitely befriend as well, given half a chance. It's not just the pictures of them either. There's something about how they crack jokes together, or know each other's stories that feels real. I also like their mission. By being proactive the girls go out and do things they wouldn't have had the guts to try (particularly Julie) on their own. That makes for good storytelling, and an excellent selection of funny situations.
Time to talk about gay parents in children's literature a little. I've been seeing a fair amount of them in my books for kids this year, and it's about time! Books like "The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister" and such. The problem is that a lot of these books sort of make a big deal about this living situation. I like books where it's casual. It just is what it is. "The Popularity Papers" sort of fulfills that need of mine. And best of all, Julie's dads have individual personalities. They're not just insert-gay-dad-here or anything. You get the definite sense that Daddy is the stable sensible one and Papa Dad is more outgoing and mischievous.
Now can I tell you what the joke was on the back of the book that encouraged me to read the whole thing? It wasn't big or fancy or anything. It's just the image of Lydia and Julie standing next to popular girl Gretchen. Lydia tells Julie to pretend like nothing's going on and to act natural. Julie responds with a frozen grin and the words, "Doo de do, acting natural!" Why I found that so amazingly funny, I don't know, but it's a perfect set-up for the rest of the book. When kids (and heck, let's admit it, some adults too) read new books, you need to hook `em in right at the start. Ignatow accomplishes this thanks to Melody. You see, when Lydia's older sister Melody was in elementary school she was a blond and perky band member. However, once she got into Junior High, Melody went uber-Goth, n'er to smile again. The before and after section with Melody is a hoot (and the killer strawberry on the next page doesn't hurt matters either). Of course Melody sort of ends up being Lydia's Jiminy Cricket. A gaunt, blood-drained, pierced, perpetually morose Jiminy Cricket, sure, but a Jiminy Cricket just the same.
Then we get to the art, which really does make up most of the book. Since the premise is that Julie is the artist of this book, everything we see here is supposedly through her own pen and colored pencils/crayons. At the same time, we need to believe in these people as we would comic book characters, so there has to be a level of really good art at work. Add on top of that the section when Julie is no longer writing in the book (a very hard sequence to pull off) and the multiple handwriting samples at work in the pages, and you begin to get a sense of how much time and effort, blood and tears went into this title. The fortunate thing is that Ignatow really does walk that fine line between "believably childlike" and "remarkably good". I never once doubted that Julie would be capable of these pictures. Plus I love how she does hands. I've never seen anyone do hands quite like this before.
"The Popularity Papers" follows in the footsteps of such books as the "Amelia's Notebook" series by Marissa Moss and Ruth McNally Barshaw's "Ellie McDoodle". In 2010 alone there are also titles like "Doodlebug" also vying for attention. That said, I think that this book stands out in the crowd. Word of mouth has already done it a heap of good. Alas, I don't suppose a lot of boys will have the guts to read it. I could be wrong, but when you have a purple book with doodled flowers and ladybugs and two female characters on a cover, boys sometimes tend to go screaming in the opposite direction. This is a shame since I think guys could get a huge kick out of this storyline. If boys read the pinkness that is "Babymouse" (and they do, they do) then they should read Ms. Ignatow as well.
Of course, there may be one particular odd and interesting result of this book. It's entirely possible that when kids finish reading it (and judging by how hard it is to keep on my library shelves, I can attest that read it they do) they're going to create their very own Popularity Paper Notebooks. That's all well and good, but I foresee some real "Harriet the Spy" hijinks in their futures. I also foresee a lot of girls trying to learn how to draw and how to be funny. And if we can get more funny females in the world, girls who understand how great it is to even BE funny (and that can draw!), then we'll owe "The Popularity Papers" more than we can ever give. A really great book and worth a close inspection. And if I absolutely have to compare it to Jeff Kinney's series, I'll do it this way: This is the funniest book I've read for kids since discovering "Diary of a Wimpy Kid". Truth.