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Originally published Friday, March 4, 2011 at 7:01 PM

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'Popularity' sequel: Amy Ignatow's girls giggle on

Kids' books: Author/artist Amy Ignatow follows up her hilarious debut novel, a hit with young girls, with "The Popularity Papers: The Long-Distance Dispatch Between Lydia Goldblatt & Julie Graham-Chang."

Scripps Howard News Service

When author/artist Amy Ignatow's book agent rejected her proposal for an adult graphic novel, he also had a word of advice.

"He told me, 'I don't want to offend you, but I think your work is very childlike,' and he suggested that I write for kids," Ignatow said in a recent talk with members of the Children's Book Guild of Washington, D.C. "The moment he said that, I thought, 'Yes! That's what comes naturally to me.' "

So Ignatow created "The Popularity Papers"(Amulet/Abrams, $15.95, ages 8-12), which was published last spring. Subtitled "Research for the Social Improvement and General Betterment of Lydia Goldblatt & Julie Graham-Chang," the book is presented as a colorfully illustrated, hand-lettered journal kept by the two fifth-graders as they try to figure out how to become popular.

Funny and realistic, this first volume of "The Popularity Papers" has become a smash hit with girl readers, and garnered rave reviews in School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and The New York Times. Now, Ignatow has just published a sequel, "The Popularity Papers: The Long-Distance Dispatch Between Lydia Goldblatt & Julie Graham-Chang" (Amulet/Abrams, $15.95, ages 8-12), in which the friends must cope with a six-month separation when Lydia's family moves to London.

Ignatow, 33, has been pleasantly stunned by her seemingly overnight success.

"I've been very lucky," Ignatow said. "I had a choice of publishers."

Born and raised in Huntington, Long Island, Ignatow has been drawing for as long as she can remember. She's also a lifelong record-keeper and journal-maker, something that helped her decide on the format for "The Popularity Papers."

Ignatow studied illustration at the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, graduating in 2002. Over the years, she's been a teacher, farmer, florist, short-order vegan cook, a dancing chicken, a wedding singer and a ghostwriter for Internet personal ads.

But Ignatow also has kept drawing.

Some years ago, she created a web comic called "Ig City" and sent a link to an agent named Dan Lazar, who liked her art and writing. So Ignatow decided to try writing an autobiographical graphic novel for adults. It was at that point that Lazar turned down the adult graphic novel, but helped Ignatow ignite her career by aiming instead for a kid audience.

Interestingly, Ignatow's career arc has parallels to that of Jeff Kinney, who hit it big over the past few years with his hugely popular "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series. Like Ignatow, Kinney first targeted his work to an adult audience, but couldn't get published until he switched his focus to young readers.

In fact, "The Popularity Papers" books are sometimes compared to Kinney's series, as "Wimpy Kid" -like books for girls, because both series are "hybrids" — books that are half text and half illustrations. The hybrid format actually has been around for some years: Long-running series like "The Magic Schoolbus" and "Captain Underpants" also are hybrids. But hybrids have only recently become a hot genre in children's books with the massive popularity of the "Wimpy Kid" books, as well as the Caldecott Medal-winning hybrid novel, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret."

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While some wonder if Ignatow was trying to capitalize on Kinney's success by writing the first "Popularity Papers" book, she says that she had never heard of the "Wimpy Kid" books until recently, and wasn't even really aware of the hybrid genre. And, in fact, "The Popularity Papers" books, which are filled with color illustrations, look markedly different from the "Wimpy Kid" books' black-and-white format.

After Ignatow decided that she would try writing for kids, she knew exactly what she wanted to write about: two girls who are best friends and who desperately want to be among the popular kids at school. So they decide to record their observations about popular kids in a journal. Ignatow adds that "The Popularity Papers" series name is a riff on the title of Charles Dickens' classic novel, "The Pickwick Papers."

In the text, which Ignatow hand-letters, each girl has a different writing style so their comments are distinguishable. For the illustrations, Ignatow deliberately uses mostly art materials that kids have at hand — markers, colored pencils, ballpoint pens — and draws as if she were in the fifth grade herself. She says she wants to emphasize that any of her readers could create a journal just like Lydia and Julie. Of the two girls, Julie is the artistic one, but Lydia draws stick figures when necessary to make a point.

Readers will enjoy "The Popularity Papers" books for the likable characters and for stories that ring true, but Ignatow also offers a modern portrait of family life. Lydia and her sister live with their single mother, while Julie has two very loving dads. Ignatow says she wasn't trying to make a political point, adding that the idea for Julie's family "just popped into my head."

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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