"Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek" by Maya Van Wagenen
First published in 2014
My rating: 3.5 out of 5
"Popular" is a memoir written by teenaged Maya about a grand experiment she conducted her 8th grade year during which she followed advice from a 1950s guide to becoming popular. Maya is shy, nerdy, frequently picked on and identifies herself as a social outcast. Betty Cornell's book promises to show her the way way to popularity, but can advice for teens given so many decades ago still be relevant?
Maya answers with a resounding "yes" -- as her year of living by the words and wisdom of Betty Cornell force her to come out of her shell, try new things and meet new people. It's a year full of love, learning, tears and girdle marks, but Maya comes out of it with a whole new definition of what it means to be popular:
"Maybe real popularity comes from when you take time to listen to someone else. When you actually care about them."
Hang on, did I just write "girdle marks" in the above paragraph? Indeed I did! Maya apparently felt that for the experiment to be effective, she had to follow Betty's word's to a T -- and that included wearing '50s-style clothes, hair and make-up. Her outfits were so awkward and conservative that her teachers worried she was either homeless or from one of "those" religions! And, despite Maya's bravery in going to school dressed like a grandmother, this sort of annoyed me a little bit. Certainly there are plenty of very good points to be drawn from Betty's suggestions about dress and grooming -- but I couldn't fathom why Maya wouldn't take that advice and apply it to modern clothes that she would actually enjoy wearing?!
My minor confusion aside, I liked "Popular" fairly well. Maya is a sweet, likeable girl and she's a pretty good writer for being just 15. Her book has some really nice messages about being kind to others, opening yourself up, taking risks (like sitting down at the super-popular kids' lunch table!) and being confident. The themes were reminiscent of R.J. Palacio's "Wonder" -- and just like in that book, my heart broke for Maya every time she was teased or taunted. Why can't we all just be a little nicer to each other? Maybe books like "Popular" and "Wonder" will help all of us -- both young and old -- to think twice about how we treat our fellow humans.