Title: Popular: A Memoir
Author: Maya Van Wagenen
Publication Date: 2014
Maya, an eighth grader in Brownsville, Texas, lives with her mom, her professor father, her younger brother Brodie, and her younger sister Natalia, and her current goal is to survive middle school. Maya considers herself as a Social Outcast at the very bottom of the school social ladder, well below the volleyball players, the football players, and the Ignored (aka sixth graders), and just above the teachers. Resigned to accept her position, Maya discovers a book purchased by her father years before at a thrift store titled Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide, written in 1951. Encouraged by her mother, Maya endeavors to follow Betty Cornell’s advice and guidance for the duration of her eighth grade year in an effort to rise up the social ladder and become “popular.”
Month by month, Maya strives to work on her hair, figure problems, clothing and fashion, and skin care to achieve her definition of “popular.” As she begins her transformation, Maya’s definition of popular is “. . . not sitting alone, or being made fun of. It’s not feeling ashamed of how you look and constantly wanting to hide in corners, wishing you could disappear. It’s not what I feel right now.” Although much of the guide focuses on physical changes, Maya soon learns that the physical is only the surface of what can happen emotionally and mentally. As her journey progresses, her self-esteem and social standing, as well as her definition of popularity, transform and grow.
From wearing long skirts, hats, and gloves, to purchasing a girdle, to sitting and talking to the kids at the Goth table at lunch, Maya’s experiences are heart-warming, hilarious, and at times painful. However, anyone who has ever experienced middle school will be drawn to her poignant observations and honest self-discovery. Her observations as a 16-year-old writer are wise and insightful well beyond her years.
This books was absolutely delightful. For one whose own middle school experiences was painful and let’s be honest, whose wasn’t, this book was touching and truthful in so many ways. I was most impressed that a 16-year-old wrote this book; not only was her writing fluid and engaging, but her observations and reflections were honest, mature, and sometimes surprising.
In our society, there is a constant call for acceptance and understanding of others. This book could have taken a preachy turn but rather was truly a story of self-discovery. As an adult, I was impressed with Maya’s growth and wisdom; truths and perspectives that she observed and learned are often not achieved until a much older age. At the same time, as a mother of three, my heart warmed as she gained knowledge and experiences that all parents hope for their own children.
Adding to the hilarity and poignancy is the fact that her guiding influence is a popularity guide from the 1950’s, and although some items – like gloves, girdles, and Vaseline on the eyelids – seem out-of-date, the core values of kindness, cleanliness, and self-respect are universal truths for any age. In addition to following the popularity guide and surviving eighth grade, Maya’s experiences also include an unrequited crush, the departure of a well-loved teacher, real-life fear of gang warfare, a special needs sister, and family financial concerns. All of these aspects blend into a truly magical and realistic coming of age story.
Who might like this book:
This would be a great book for book clubs; if just to have a fun evening rehashing the humor and horrors of everyone’s own middle school experiences. As a former teacher, I would love to be able to have my students have read a book like this. The knowledge that someone their own age could pen a story combined with the understanding that they are not the only ones with struggles and fears and failures would provide some great dialogue and hopefully a little more acceptance and patience with others.
I have given the book to both my 15-year-old daughter and my 12-year-old daughter. Both girls enjoyed the book immensely and could relate to Maya’s experiences. My older daughter, who has survived middle school and is now facing high school, commented that Maya’s depiction of school life, societal pressures, and community attitudes was very accurate. Both girls found the story to be relatable and tangible. We enjoyed laughing at Maya’s humor and situations, but we also noted what makes an individual unique and special. This would be a perfect book for a mother-daughter book club as well.