Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen, review by Melissa Fox
The summer before she starts eighth grade, Maya Van Wagenen is handed (by
her parents, on a lark) a copy of Betty Cornell's Guide to Teenage Popularity, circa the 1950s (which Penguin, amusingly enough, has reprinted as an accompanying read to Popular). Her mom suggests, again on a lark, that maybe Maya should follow the advice in the book, and write it down, just to see what happens.
This book is what happened.
There aren't words enough for me to express my love for this book. Perhaps it's because I have a daughter just finishing eighth grade, and it's been a rough year for her. Perhaps, too, it's because I was much like Maya started out in eighth grade: socially awkward, at the bottom of the social hierarchy, trying to fit in my small, conservative, Michigan middle school. (I had just moved there two years before, and still hadn't figured out how to fit in with kids who'd known each other since kindergarten.)
To say I could relate to this book is an understatement.
But my enjoyment went beyond that. Maya tackled a chapter or two of the book each month during the school year, and the chapters were divided up with her reflections of her progress. Along the way, we got to know her family (she has terrifically cool parents) and her school mates (she lives in Brownville, TX, and to say that she has a rough school, is to not even brush the tip of the iceberg). At the beginning, she's very humorous about he whole project; when she hits the dress chapter, she takes it literally,
dressing like someone from the 1950s and gets teased (sometimes mercilessly) for dressing like someone's grandma. It's easy to think that Betty's guide really doesn't fit in today's world.
But somewhere along the way, Maya -- and me, as a reader -- discovered that Betty really is applicable, and maybe she really does have the secret. And I was touched by her insight, her observations, and her maturity. By the time I closed the book, I wanted to cheer for Maya -- she's an amazing girl, one I'd be proud to call my daughter -- and to thrust this book in the hands of everyone I know, grownups and teens alike.
I just wish I'd had this (or Betty's book, for that matter) when I was in eighth grade.