Books & More from the Teen Scene

Book reviews and other reflections from one of Oregon's young adult librarians

“Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek” by Maya Van Wagenen October 5, 2014

Filed under: Books,Memoir/Biography,Non-Fiction,Young Adult — hilariouslibrarian @ 10:40 am
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Popular cover

Images courtesy of

The Facts

272 pages; published April 2014

The Basics

At age 13, Maya Van Wagenen comes across Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide from 1951 and decides to take on a secret project: follow the advice for a year and see how it affects her popularity as a modern middle school student in Brownsville, Texas. Her diary from that extraordinary and sometimes disastrous year has become an engaging memoir, peppered with her own memorably funny popularity tips for the next generation.


Headed into her 8th grade year clinging to the bottom rung of the popularity ladder, Maya Van Wagenen makes possibly the strangest choice she could have. She decided to systematically, month-by-month, live according to the advice set out in a battered, found copy of of Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide published in 1951. Yep. Sixty-year-old fashion and exercise tips for an awkward girl attending a high-poverty middle school where class is interrupted at times by things like two pregnant girls (7th and 8th grade) fighting in the hall or another visit from drug-sniffing dogs.

The thing is – it works … on many levels. Maya gets a lot of attention, negative and positive, but actually does become popular in a meaningful way. And it works as a story. Maya’s voice as the author is engaging and honest. She is not overly precocious or silly. She’s a smart, thoughtful girl looking with no small amount of humor at her own life.

Other teens should find it easy to relate to many aspects of her experience.

Random Thoughts

  • I loved that the family tracked down Betty Cornell about 3/4 of the way into the experiment and loved even more how gracious and supportive Betty was.
  • Maya’s family seems awesome. She talks about lacking and building confidence through her project, but it’s clear that she has a solid, loving foundation that gave her the basic guts to do any of this.

I’ll Recommend This To …

  • Any teen who thinks they’re alone in feeling like they don’t know how to make friends or otherwise navigate the mine-field that is a school social life
  • Readers interested in true, but entertaining stories
  • Fans of fiction authors like Rainbow Rowell, Deb Caletti, and Sarah Dessen
  • Parents interested in remembering what it’s like to be a teen
  • Anyone who remembers wearing pearls, a hat, and gloves to church on Sundays

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