Review: Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen

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June 3, 2014 by Heidi

Popular_comp9.inddTitle: Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek [Goodreads]
Author: Maya Van Wagenen [Twitter]
Standing: Stand alone.
Genre: Young Adult, Non-Fiction
Published: April 15th, 2014 by Dutton Juvenile
Format: Hardcover; 272 pgs. 
Source: Borrowed from work.

A touchingly honest, candidly hysterical memoir from breakout teen author Maya Van Wagenen 

Stuck at the bottom of the social ladder at pretty much the lowest level of people at school who aren’t paid to be here,” Maya Van Wagenen decided to begin a unique social experiment: spend the school year following a 1950s popularity guide, written by former teen model Betty Cornell. Can curlers, girdles, Vaseline, and a strand of pearls help Maya on her quest to be popular? 

The real-life results are painful, funny, and include a wonderful and unexpected surprise—meeting and befriending Betty Cornell herself. Told with humor and grace, Maya’s journey offers readers of all ages a thoroughly contemporary example of kindness and self-confidence.

“You sure are chortling an awful lot.”

This is what my fiance says to me as we sit in bed at night, him reading Game of Thrones (finally!!!) and me reading Maya Van Wagenen’s break-out teen memoir, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek.  And I was.  Chortling that is.  An awful lot.

I don’t usually enjoy memoirs.  In fact, I can’t think of the last one I didn’t DNF that wasn’t written by a celebrity I was a particular fan of.  I’m much more of a biography kind of girl.  Memoirs always come across to me as particularly aggrandized and self-serving. Something about Popular, however, called to me from the moment one enthusiastic parent came looking for it explaining to me just what Maya did.

One of the first things to know is that Maya Van Wagenen really is your average awkward teen.  She began the experiment that was Popular by entering her 8th grade year (and first year as a teen), on a suggestion from her mother and a rare find by her father.  See, Maya’s quirky father had picked up a copy of Betty Cornell’s Teen Age Popularity Guide at a thrift store on a whim years previously.  When Maya finds the book and begins to gawk at many of Cornell’s suggestions, she decides to put Cornell’s 1951 advice to the test.  Will these suggestions on popularity be relevant over 50 years later?

What follows is a touching, poignant, and quite funny tale of a school-year experiment that begins with braces, glasses, and a low place on the social totem pole and ends with bright eyes, a new perspective, and, yes–true popularity.  Maya breaks Cornell’s book down into chapters, tackling one each month from easiest (diet and exercise) to most difficult (breaking out of your social shell).

Popular is told in the epistolary format through a series of dated journal-type entries made from Maya’s extensive notes.  Slowly but surely we see Betty Cornell push Maya out of her comfort zone, and I can’t help but agree with one of the kid’s a Maya’s school–she has balls.  Few 13 year olds would be willing to face the social ridicule of changing up hair, make-up, and clothing so drastically.  Maya becomes married to the response that she’s doing it ‘for fun’.  She’s wearing a hat and gloves to church ‘for fun’, she’s sitting at a different table every day at lunch ‘for fun’, she’s overhauling the rules of a well-established social structure ‘for fun’.  And she does an amazing job.

My favorite aspect of Popular, however, is how honest it ccomes across.  Maya attended middle school in a south-border town in Texas, where a greater dichotomy to the prim and proper 1950’s outlook couldn’t be made.  Her days are filled with lock downs, drug dogs, and pregnant teen catfights.  She experiences the real highs of success, but only because she’s also hit with some real lows.  Maya’s family is tight, supportive, and wonderful, and somehow she gains the insight to see that people are just people, no matter how they may appear on the outside.

I truly believe that this book could have a huge impact on the lives of many young people.  Maybe as big of an impact as Betty Cornell’s Teen Age Popularity Guide had on Maya’s.  It is a book that made me proud of the author as I read it because of how far she comes throughout, and also because it is written by a teen.  An insightful and well-spoken one, for sure, but a real and true teen nonetheless.  I recommend this book for every teen, if you have one at home, or are one, please pick it up.  Whether you’re in middle school, high school, or even starting college, it may just change how you look at your world.  All of that said, I will leave you with Maya’s final popularity tip:

Popularity is more than looks.  It’s not clothes, hair, or even possessions.  When we let go of these labels, we see how flimsy and relative they actually are.  Real popularity is kindness and acceptance.  It is about who you are, and how you treat others.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  I would absolutely read anything Maya puts out next.  I find her so likable I don’t even want to strangle her for being half my age and a published author.

Recommended for:  I wish I had a time machine to go back and give this to 19 year old me.  I realize that sounds odd, but having grown up in a small town I didn’t realize how shy and withdrawn I was until college–I’d known everyone in my hometown my whole life.  I think if I’d read this as an incoming college freshman it may have had a huge impact on my college years, which were, quite frankly, pretty miserable.  Anyone who’s going through some sort of socially awkward phase in their life should pick this one up!

Get a second opinion:
Tragically Dull Adventures of an Almost Librarian – “It’s funny, emotional, awkward, and honest. Great for mother daughter book clubs, bookworms, fifties fashionistas, and more. LOVED it!!!”

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1 comment »

  1. This is such an interesting concept! It’s seriously something I’d NEVER have thought of, much less actually done.
    I’m not a fan of memoirs either (my last one was Wild and that didn’t end up going so well), but I may have to make an exception here. This just sounds so refreshingly different and genuine that I don’t think I can pass it by.
    By the way, glad to see a new review from you, Heidi! :)

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