Review of Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, the tale of a tween who broke the rules of middle school

Review of Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, the tale of a tween who broke the rules of middle school

Maya Van Wagenen wrote her first book, Popular: Vintage Wisdom For The Modern Geek, by the time she turned 15 years old and it details how she followed Betty Cornell's Teenage Popularity Guide from the 1950's as an eighth grader in the 2010's.

Dreamworks has optioned the rights to her book, but the project did not start with the idea of becoming a movies. Rather, it had very humble beginnings.

Maya's dad picked up a copy of the book by Betty Cornell, a model when Maya was little, just to hang on to a bit of pop culture from the period. The family rediscovered it when cleaning out a closet. Maya's mom was the one who had the idea for Maya to follow the suggestions in the book. (I love the family effort.)

She undertook the project in a bid to overcome her social status, which she describes as "social outcast" and just barely above the level of a substitute teacher in the school's social hierarchy.

Each month throughout the school year, Maya focuses on a different theme. Following Betty's suggestions meant putting Vaseline on her eyelids, wearing a girdle (who knew they still made them?) and wearing a hat, gloves, and pearls.

All of these actions seem to break the unspoken rules of how tween girls should operate in today's society.71UxaNJLXWL

The part of the book that had the greatest impact on me was the month April, during which Maya focused on "Popular Attitude." One of her goals for the month was to sit at a different table in the lunch room each day.

As Maya's best friend, Kenzie, tells her well into the school year, "The rules run deep." But that doesn't deter Maya.

Even as an adult, I admit that this made me feel uneasy. I remember the middle school lunch room as a place where the lines, rules and table assignments were clearly drawn, not to be violated. And a friend told me what happened when seating was disrupted at her daughter's middle school. The resulting mean girl behavior was not pretty.

Maya's writing, however, is in a strong and clear voice, and it's impossible to not root for her. I found myself holding my breath at some of her experiments and hoping that they would be well received, but fearing the worst. It is no surprise that middle school students can be cruel.

Her observations about popularity are impressive for someone her age. I don't think I'm giving anything away, but Spoiler Alert, interest in others and kindness goes a long, long way.

Maya realizes that the nicer she is to people and the more she talks with them, the kinder they are to her, and the more popular she feels. She is surprised by how much she genuinely likes the people that she talks to for the very first time. And the answers she gets from classmates when asking them about popularity are fascinating.

Her actions are brave, and would certainly not be easy for every tween to undertake.  She had to be bold and break the rules. Several people tell her she has balls, and they're right. (And that's about as raunchy as the book gets, so don't worry.)

This book also made me think about the social rules that we as adults still follow, and what would happen if we broke them on a more regular basis.

We all know that there are cliques of moms just like there were cliques in middle school, and that we as parents can be great examples for our kids. Talk to the mom who is new. Include parents you don't know all that well. Discuss how your initial perception of someone turned out to be wrong. Ask our kids to be kind to others.

Let our children know we expect them to treat others well, regardless of social status.

Will it always work? Nope. And Popular deals with that. It's almost like she had an advance copy of Taylor Swift's new song, Shake It Off.

Popular also shows how sometimes risks do pay off and how good it can be to break the rules, step out of the boxes that we perceive have been drawn for us and do something brave.

The book was a good reminder of what middle school feels like when you're in it. It addresses, in a fairly cursory manner, some tough issues, like drugs and school violence, both of which are prevalent at her middle school in Brownsville, Texas. Maya is close with a teacher who has cancer, has a sister with autism and her family doesn't have much money. She has a lot going on in her life, and this is a good peak inside the mind of a tween. And it makes her seem all the more impressive.

I like this book enough to pass it along to my tween. I'm curious to get her reaction and see if Maya's project inspires my girl to take some risks and break some rules herself.

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Filed under: Books & Magazines

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