Books & More from the Teen Scene

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

Maya Van Wagenen’s Popularity Tips – A Selection October 7, 2014

Filed under: Quotes — hilariouslibrarian @ 11:24 am
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Betty Cornell's Teenage Popularity Guide cover

Images courtesy of

One of the elements I most enjoyed from Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen was the periodic insertion of “Maya’s Popularity Tips,” which ranged from tongue-in-cheek to hilariously specific to perfectly serious. They certainly could not be confused with the prim and proper tone of the 1951 advice she is following from author Betty Cornell.

Here are a few favorites:

Never throw up in class. It’s better just to run out of the room and retch in the hallway. Even if you make it to the trash can in the corner, if anyone sees you puke, you will be tormented forever. During elementary school I hurled in a wastebasket. When we moved away five years later, the last thing one boy said to me was, “You’re that girl who barfed in kindergarten.” It’s impossible to live some things down.

When you’re wearing an embarrassing hairstyle and people have started to notice, it’s always safest to have a sudden, urgent, need to pee.

Make your yearbook pictures memorable because, as my science teacher says, “Your grandkids have to laugh a something.”

Bite your tongue off before nerd-talking about Lord of the Rings to the boy you like. Unless he himself is from Middle Earth.

Don’t question your wardrobe choices based on someone else’s religious intolerance.

Laugh at your friends’ painful situations only after they give you permission to do so … or when no one else is around.

Maya’s Final Popularity Tip

Popularity is more than looks. It’s not clothes, hair, or even possessions. When we let go of these labels, we see how flimsy and relative they actually are. Real popularity is kindness and acceptance. It is about who you are, and how you treat others.

P.S. Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide has now been republished and is available in bookstores and libraries for readers who want to enjoy the text that inspired Maya to live and write Popular!


“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

“I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister” by Amélie Sarn, translated by Y. Maudet October 4, 2014

Filed under: Books,Fiction,Multi-Cultural,Realistic — hilariouslibrarian @ 8:48 am
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I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

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The Facts

152 pages; published August 2014

The Basics

Devout Muslim Sohane struggles to deal with her grief and conflicting emotions about her more worldly sister, Djelila, who has been killed by religious extremists.

The Booktalk

Heart-shredding sadness abounds in this gorgeously written story of two French sisters of Algerian descent. Sohane is older. A devout Muslin, she has made the choice to wear a hijab (headscarf). Her family is baffled, the women in her community are indignant, and her school expels her. Her younger sister, Djelila, is on another path, rejecting their Algerian and Muslim heritage, wearing jeans and revealing clothing, and playing basketball at their French school. When her path crosses a gang of punky Muslim teens who want their women more traditional, the situation becomes deadly, leaving Sohane to struggle wit an almost unbearable burden of anger and grief.

Random Thoughts

  • The elegance and poetry of the writing is simply stunning.
  • This book is a deeply painful reflection on freedom and the many ways in which people interfere with each other.
  • There are insights into both expat Algerian and French culture that are both puzzling and worth thinking about.
  • The story has its roots in an actual crime in France, which makes it all the more tragic.

I’ll Recommend This To …

  • Sophisticated readers of realistic fiction
  • Teens with a keen interest in writing
  • Anyone who wants a story that expands their understanding of the world
  • People looking for stories guaranteed to make them cry

Great quotes from Alice Roosevelt September 25, 2014

Filed under: Quotes — hilariouslibrarian @ 10:28 pm
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Alice Roosevelt photo

Image from the Library of Congress

By all accounts, Alice Roosevelt was not an easy daughter to raise or person to know, but she has a sharp mind and a sharper tongue and left a legacy of some delightfully snarky quotes that make a person both smile and cringe a little.

If you can’t any something good about someone, sit right here by me.

I have a simple philosophy: Fill what’s empty. Empty what’s full. Scratch where it itches.

I’ve always believed the adage that the secret of eternal youth is arrested development.

My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.

He [Calvin Coolidge] looks at though he’s been weaned on a pickle.

My specialty is detached malevolence.

You can’t make a souffle rise twice.

Source: The Almanac of Theodore Roosevelt –


“When Audrey Met Alice” by Rebecca Behrens

When Audrey Met Alice cover

Images courtesy of

The Facts

304 pages; published February 2014

The Basics

The Audrey is question is the only child of the first female president of the United States. At 13, she is chafing under the many restrictions of being the First Daughter, looking on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave as more of a prison than an honor. She finds the 1902 diary of former First Daughter Alice Roosevelt and enters into a wonderful relationship with this spirited historic figure, taking inspiration from Alice’s antics during her days as a White House resident.


You would think being the daughter of a president and living in the White House would be glamorous and amazing. That’s not what Audrey Rhodes – daughter of American’s first female president – would tell you. With her mother busy running the country, Audrey is stuck alone this big old house that is definitely not home with a bunch of uptight staffers. She can’t even have friends over because they don’t have security clearance. And now she’s being left out of her class trip to New York because it’s too tricky for the Secret Service. When Audrey stumbles across a diary hidden under the floorboards by former First Daughter Alice Roosevelt, eldest daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, she discovers that someone understands what a pain it is to be trapped by presidential protocol and rigid expectations. Alice’s wild behavior while living in the White House was the stuff of many scandals in the early 1900s. Her stories get Audrey thinking that maybe she has been a little too easy to tame and she strikes out to put the fun back in being a First Daughter.

Random Thoughts

  • Both characters are delightful and the story is sweet. This is perfect middle grade girl fare.
  • I have a special spot in my heart for Alice Roosevelt. You just have to admire her spunk and creativity. When Teddy Roosevelt forbade her from smoking in the White House, for example, Alice took her cigarettes up to the roof. One of the best “real” quotes in the book comes from the day TR famously said, “I can either run the country or I can control Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”

I’ll Recommend This To …

  • Many middle schoolers and teachers as I booktalk during class visits
  • Teens who like light-hearted stories
  • Readers interested in fun approaches to exploring history
  • Fans of the Roosevelts
  • All girls named Alice

“The Story of Owen” by E.K. Johnston September 22, 2014

The Story of Owen cover

Images courtesy of

The Facts

312 pages; published March 2014

The Basics

Siobhan is a gifted musician. Owen is the youngest in a line of famous Canadian dragon slayers. Siobhan enters his life as his algebra tutor, but soon finds she had really be recruited as his bard, charged with the task of helping change the way the small community of Trondheim and the world behind see the work of the dragon slayers who labor to save humanity from carbon-emission-and-people-eating dragons.


It’s not easy being a dragon slayer. Dragons are ruthless in their pursuit of carbon emissions and people are idiots about not only making the emissions, but about the dragon slayers during a battle. Lottie Thorskard–once the most famous dragon slayer in Canada and maybe the world–paid a terrible price for the shortcomings of others. Now, she is determined the things will be different for her nephew, Owen, dragon slayer-in-training and high school students struggling in algebra. Using algebra as a cover, Lottie arranges for Owen to take on a bard, Siobhan, with the idea that she will use her considerable musical talents to shine a positive light on the world of the dragon slayer. Siobhan, Owen, Lottie, and the entire community of Trondheim are in for more danger and excitement that any of them could have imagined.

Random Thoughts

  • This book is droll and clever, but not quite as action-filled as I thought it might be for a book about humans battling dragons. On the other hand, the characters are completely charming and the social commentary is pointed and biting. It is more of a thinking person’s action/adventure.
  • Owen’s aunts, Lottie and Hannah, may be my favorite literary couple this year so far. I simply adored them both.

But Wait, There’s More!

The Story of Owen is book 1 in The Dragon Slayer of Trondheim series. Prairie Fire is due out sometime in 2015.

I’ll Recommend This To …

  • Smart readers with sophisticated senses of humor
  • Teens who want a little climate change allegory mixed into their adventure stories
  • People who want a teen book with no romance, but a true mixed-gender friendship
  • Aspiring writers who want to read something deliciously crafted

“Strange Sweet Song” by Adi Rule September 21, 2014

Strange Sweet Song cover

Images courtesy of

The Facts

336 pages; published March 2014

The Basics

Promising soprano Sing de Navelli follows the footsteps of her famous parents to the remote Dunhammond Conservatory and finds herself nearly undone by the gothic atmosphere and dark mysteries that surround her.


For soprano Sing da Navelli, every corner of Dunhammond Conservatory contains a challenge: the legacy of her famous dead mother; the demands of her famous live father; the fury of her rival; and the mystery of her dark and moody vocal coach. Overshadowing all is the legend of the Felix, a great cat-like beast lurking in the woods beyond the conservatory ready to alternately tear out the throat or grant the deepest wish of any who approach. Doubting her own talent and struggling to find her place in the musical landscape, Sing is pulled ever deeper into timeless secrets.

Random Thoughts

  • This is a quite odd mixture of contemporary fiction blended with gothic, magical, and paranormal elements. The result is unusual, but so enjoyable.
  • It is always unwise to compete with your own dead mother.

I’ll Recommend This to …

  • Fans of fantasy and paranormal stories who want more than just a romance
  • Teen writers who are looking for examples of beautiful prose
  • Readers who are also musicians