Middle school, for many of us, was a time of great confusion. There were training bras, and zits, and oops I forgot my deodorant, and oops the boy who used to be my friend is now my crush, and what do you mean I need glasses and braces and STIRRUP PANTS (why, early nineties, why?). I had a lot of bad hair and bad clothes, but what I did have was lots of good books. That said, if I had been able to read THE POPULARITY PAPERS, I think my middle school years might have been just a little easier.
Meet Lydia Goldblatt (sometimes called "Goldbladder" by the mean kids), a blond curly-girl with glasses and lots of gumption. Her best friend, Julie Graham-Chang, is the quiet one, the artist/cartoonist, the short one who's easy to overlook. Junior high is looming, and Lydia realizes that neither she nor Julie are anywhere in the vicinity of popular. They decide to spend sixth grade in the pursuit of popularity, but not in the traditional way. Like the National Geographic explorers of old, Lydia and Julie begin a notebook of discovery, wherein they can document their findings after extensive observation, and then, Francis Bacon-like, apply the scientific method to test and see what works. Case in point: our heroines discover many popular girls have a blond streak in their hair. Lydia attempts to lighten a swath of hair with bleach. Under the sink bleach. Burn your skin off bleach. (Luckily she can hide the bald spot until the hair grows back.) Lydia, as the outgoing one, has more interaction at first with the glitterati of her school, but Julie finds her own chances to mingle once she joins the field hockey team.
What really works in this painfully funny (graphic?) novel is the core friendship of Lydia and Julie. The sincerity with which Ignatow writes is just wonderful to read, and there is such loving care in the crafting of their personalities, even down to the differences in their handwriting. As this book is truly a journal of sorts, it reads like an intimate dialogue between two girls that you can't help but root for from page one. Sometimes they give each other their best, and sometimes they let each other down, but what remains is the truest element of friendship: change will happen, but true friends will grow alongside you, and give you room to grow in your own way. I love that Lydia and Julie both try things that are new to them, and both attempt things that are scary (and not always together), because junior high (and oh yeah, real life) is full of those moments. Our heroines both have family issues as well: Lydia lives with her high-strung single mother and emo sister, while Julie lives with her two dads, and both girls are trying desperately to transition out of "little kid" mode.
THE POPULARITY PAPERS will invariably draw comparisons to DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, and I hope that anyone who does will make the same connections I did. Both PP and WIMPY utilize a lot of comic-style art. Both PP and WIMPY take place in that shadowy land between kid-dom and adolescent-dom. Both PP and WIMPY feature two best friends. Both PP and WIMPY have a journal-like construct. This is all very true. You're missing the point, however, if you don't make this last connection, which I think is the only one really worth mentioning: both PP and WIMPY are utterly HILARIOUS. Lydia and Julie are comedy gold together, and I laughed out loud over and over again. I have written before about how publishers and writers need to bring the funny if they want to reach kids today, and THE POPULARITY PAPERS delivers hard-core. I am going to LOVE selling this book. (If I had a time machine, I'd send one back to myself in 6th grade. I mean it.)
Here's the sad truth of it: I am in the second round of braces. I suffered through the first round while in middle school, and now, years later, I found myself back in the orthodontist's chair with some wayward bottom teeth. (Why couldn't they have behaved as well as the top teeth? Why?) I'm currently in month four of a proposed six month treatment, and let me tell you, it's every bit as uncomfortable as I remember. While I appreciate the fact my foray into brace-dom is only going to be a quarter of what I experienced the first time, I cannot WAIT to get this metal out of my mouth.
As I started reading NERDS, my current situation gave me a lot of immediate sympathy for Jackson Jones, who, on page 4, is having a conversation to one I had five months back with my orthodontist. (However, Jackson is a bully, and popular, and athletic, so our similarities pretty much end at the braces). The braces cause a huge ripple effect on his life, and overnight, he becomes a shadow of the kid he used to be. Friends ignore him, and his enormous headgear is too big for sports helmets, so his athletic career comes to an abrupt halt. He accidentally gets stuck in a locker and discovers that it's a passageway into the headquarters for NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society. NERDS is a government-run organization that uses kids (with supercharged "upgrades" that turn their weaknesses into strengths) as secret ops, mainly because kids are so at ease with the technology the job requires. Also, the fact they're kids makes them less likely suspects. When the scanners come upon Jackson, they find his weakness is his teeth, and so his braces are upgraded, making them into offensive and defensive weapons. When the currently employed NERDS from his school discover he's found his way into their lair, they are incensed. Jackson was, until quite recently, the bane of most of their lives, and forgiveness for his bullying ways is slow in coming.
NERDS is a fun middle-grade romp, with a great multicultural cast. Boys and girls are equally adept using their extraordinary "upgraded" skills, and a girl leads the team (code name Pufferfish, who is allergic to lies and betrayal). The art, by Ethen Beavers, is wonderfully Cartoon Network-esque, and the chapter breaks are fun takes on ID scanners: fingerprint, optical scan, and one where the scanner demands cash. Michael Buckley has already proved his ability to manage a large cast of characters in his Sisters Grimm novels, and that comes in handy here, as there are a lot of names to remember, and code names to boot. The book does weigh in at over 300 pages, so that may deter less confident readers. NERDS gives the geeks and underdogs of the world a chance to shine, and that's something this current Braceface is glad to see.
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