Review: Popular by Maya Van Wagenen

I’ve been recommending this book a lot lately, especially to my friends with daughters.  There aren’t that many books out there that feel fresh and original, and this one did.  First, a major disclaimer: I am NOT the target audience for this book.  It’s a bit hard to fairly review a book written by a middle-schooler.  I can’t really criticize the book since I’m practically as old as Betty herself.  But no worries, because I loved it.

bettyMaya wrote this book about her eighth grade year in a small Texas border town.  While her parents are cleaning out their office, they find an old social etiquette book from the fifties written by Betty Cornell. Cornell was a model who started writing self-help books for teenagers like “The Glamour Guide for Teens” and “The Teen-age Popularity Guide”.  Maya’s mother suggests she follow the book’s suggestions and see what happens, and Maya decides she has nothing to lose as she’s one of the lowest on her school’s social ladder (just above substitute teachers).  She decides to follow a chapter a month for one school year, and since she wants to be a writer, she plans from the outset to write about her experiences.  She spends a month at a time on things like body issues, clothing, hygiene, and posture.

 Maya has one best friend, a teacher and a librarian who support her, and a small circle of “social outcasts” that she sits with at lunch.  At the beginning of the book, she approaches school in exactly the same way I did: most of the people in the school are off limits because they are more popular. If I didn’t know someone, I didn’t talk to them.  If I knew them but they were more popular (which was everyone) I didn’t talk to them.  I’ve long been sad about how many people I didn’t get to know in school because of these perceived barriers, and how much I missed out on.

maya and bettyI wish I could have read this book as a teenager.  I wonder, though, if I would learn from it or if those things can only be learned in hindsight, after it’s too late to change anything.  Sigh.

What made the biggest impression on me was Maya’s willingness to take risks.  I wish I’d had the nerve to do half of what she did.  Even if it’s silly things like wearing long skirts and pearls to school.  The point is, she does the thing that terrified me the most as a kid — she calls attention to herself.  Other kids point and laugh and talk about her but she just keeps going, and when things don’t work out, she learns from them.

This is a light read at times, but Maya faces some difficult issues as well.  I think telling you more would spoil the book.  There are some obvious takeaways — such as, it turns out popularity has little to do with your posture.  But like most good books this is really about the journey.  This book brought me right back to my middle school days, which fall just about halfway between Cornell’s and Maya’s.  So clearly middle school hasn’t changed any.  You can imagine that some of Cornell’s advice is dated — Maya’s mother balks at buying her a girdle — but much of it was not.

Betty’s lesson is much deeper than I ever expected:I wanted popularity; I wanted other people to like me. But it turns out most people are wanting to be discovered too.

I truly enjoyed Maya’s voice and the way she tells her story.  I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Amber Faith.  Even though it wasn’t narrated by Maya herself, I felt like I was listening to her.  I think this is a fantastic book for parents of daughters, for teenage girls, and even for those of us who went through all this stuff ourselves a long time ago.

Note: I read this book for the Read Harder 2020 challenge (a nonfiction YA book) and the Nonfiction Challenge (social science).


  2 comments for “Review: Popular by Maya Van Wagenen

  1. February 17, 2020 at 1:19 am

    Sounds like a great read for young women, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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