Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek

by Maya Van Wagenen
First sentence:”‘School is the armpit of life,’ my best friend Kenzie once told me.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Because eighth graders aren’t exactly the nicest creatures in the world, there is some language, all of it mild and very infrequent. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-12) of the bookstore, but honestly, anyone who can handle the subject matter (she does talk about taking sex ed and drug inspections and lockdowns at her school), should read this one.

The summer before she starts eighth grade, Maya Van Wagenen discovers in a box a copy of “Betty Cornell’s Guide to Teenage Popularity”, circa the 1950s  Her mom suggests, offhand, that maybe Maya should follow the advice in the book, write it down, and see what happens.

This book is the result of that year.

There aren’t the words to express my love here.  Perhaps it’s because I have a daughter just finishing eighth grade, and it’s been a rough year for her. Perhaps, it’s because I was much like how Maya started 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.)

But my enjoyment went beyond just being able to relate to Maya. She tackled a chapter or two of Betty’s book each month during the school year, and the chapters were divided up with her reflections of her progress. Along the way, I got to know her family (she has terrifically cool parents; my favorite side story of hers was the list of answers you’re not supposed to say when crossing through a U.S./Mexico border patrol. My favorite was “I am, but I’m not too sure about the kids in the trunk.”) and her school mates (she lives in Brownville, TX, and to say that she has a rough school, is an understatement). At first, she’s very humorous about he whole project. For instance, when she hits the dress chapter, she takes it literally, dressing like someone from the 1950s, getting stared at and teased for dressing like someone’s grandma. It’s easy to think that Betty’s guide really doesn’t fit in today’s world.

Somewhere along the way, Maya — and I, as well– discovered that Betty’s book is really still applicable, and maybe she really does have the secret to “popularity”.  I was touched by Maya’s insight, her observations, and her maturity. By the time I closed the book, I wanted to cheer for her — 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.

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