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Review: The Popularity Papers

Fifth-graders Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang have always been close but never been cool. With junior high less than a year away, the two decide to study the popular kids’ behavior, clothing, and speech, recording their observations in a notebook. As Lydia and Julie begin applying their research to themselves, however, their once rock-solid friendship is threatened by new relationships, new activities, and a new-found interest in boys.

The Popularity Papers
By Amy Ignatow
Ages 8 and up
2010, Amulet Books, ISBN: 978-0810984219
208 pp., $15.95

Amy Ignatow’s book is warm and funny, filled with small but smartly observed details. In one passage, for example, Lydia and Julie notice that “all the popular girls have cell phones,” and lobby their parents for phones of their own — a plan that backfires when Lydia’s mother buys her a Ladybug, a garish cell phone designed for young children. In another, the girls compile data on the school’s most talked-about boys, dryly attributing their classmates’ interest in Mr. Peters, their teacher, to the fact “he wears jeans while he’s teaching” and “he has a very small beard right under his lip.” These two moments are a subtle, amusing reminder of Lydia and Julie’s predicament: they’re caught between wanting to seem more adult and finding adult standards of “coolness” bewildering.

Ignatow’s gift for creating believable characters extends to her supporting cast as well. The in-crowd isn’t portrayed as monolithic group of kids under the sway of a mean, charismatic leader, but as a collection of individuals; some turn out to be friendly, others insecure, and still others indifferent. Lydia and Julie are astonished to learn that the popular kids haven’t been shunning them; as Julie observes in the final pages of the book, “they just didn’t know we existed.”

The artwork has considerable charm. Ignatow creates distinctive “voices” for her lead characters that seem just right for their ages and contrasting personalities. (Julie, the calmer and more sensitive of the two, is a better artist than the spazzy, extroverted Lydia.) Julie’s drawings, in particular, have a wide-eyed appeal that neatly encapsulates how she and Lydia see themselves: awkward and dorky yet happy in their friendship.

As winsome as the illustrations are, the book’s design is ungainly, falling somewhere between a graphic novel and a conventional chapter book. The handwritten text is a chore to read (Lydia’s thoughts are expressed in a cramped cursive style), while many of the illustrations don’t make sense in the context of the girls’ research project: why would they include drawings of themselves interacting with their parents, for example? I would have preferred to see Ignatow do a straight graphic novel or chapter book, perhaps embellished with a few passages from the “Popularity Papers”; she obviously has the artistic and narrative chops to excel in either medium.

Younger readers, however, are less likely to be troubled by these kind of inconsistencies than adults. The story’s brisk pace, sympathetic leads, and funny-awkward situations should appeal to pre-teen girls who are wrestling with the same issues as Lydia and Julie. For ages eight to eleven.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.

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