I just stole a sentence from a book which I thought I would despise: Maya Van Wagenen’s Popular, a Memoir: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek. I loved this book, and I am a huge skeptic when it comes to books on teen popularity. My husband and I are parents of a pre-teen, and I regularly tell my son that I wouldn’t go back to middle school for all the money in the world. But I digress. I dislike “gimmicky” books, and when I first heard the general premise of this book, I wrongly assumed that it would be just that: gimmicky.
Maya, a young teen living near the Mexican border in Brownsville, Texas, decided that she would apply the principles found in a 1950’s etiquette book (Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide) to her modern day life in middle school. She would adopt the advice – both physical and psychological – in an effort to make more friends and come out of her shell.
In many ways, it’s just a really good slice-of-life book about being a young teen and facing all the things (body issues, friend estrangements) that young teens face, including heavy topics like a dying mentor. Her discussion of where she lived was equally interesting: being on the Tex-Mex border, they could see smoke from Mexico as it burns in the drug war (63). Her school was regularly on lockdown, and not for drills. She’s essentially a middle-class kid (her dad is a Ph.D. who works in academia) living in a predominantly blue collar world; her observations were insightful and poignant on this. Maya would regularly poke fun at herself: her looks, her clothes (she claims to do all her shopping at Walmart), and her dorkiness. She could not be more likeable, and her writing style was genuine and funny.
Like most things in life, her experiment worked and it didn’t. She thoroughly embarassed her best friend Kenzie by wearing 1950’s clothing (girdle, long skirt, the works) to school. She worked on her posture and wore minimal makeup. She did the tummy reducing exercises which Betty Cornell recommended. But mostly, she worked on initiating conversations with people who seemed intimidating or lonely or not in her “group.” As an adult, I tend to forget how hard it was for me to do that as a teen, but Maya worked on it and got better at it. Her final thesis – not original but completely true – is that real popularity is directly tied in to how kind you are to people, and how accepting you are of them. She admits it has everything to do with your ability to get along with all kinds of people. I wish I had known that as a teen; I know adults who are still working this out. Way to go, Maya. Your book is awesome.