Review Blog

Jun 13 2014

Popular: Vintage wisdom for a modern geek (a memoir) by Maya Van Wagenen

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Penguin Australia, 2014. ISBN 9780141353258.
Highly recommended for the laughs and the insights for girls 12 plus. Meet Maya Van Wegenen, self-proclaimed geek and lowest of the low on her school's social ladder. In 8th grade at Brownsville, a US town on the border of Mexico, where drug busts, gang violence, illegal immigrants and pregnant teens are the norm, Maya embarked on a remarkable social experiment.
When her dad bought a quirky 1950s style guide from a thrift shop called Betty Cornell's Teen-age Popularity Guide, he never dreamed his daughter would take on the challenge of transforming herself with Betty's advice.
Maya is passionate about writing, a good student who not only respects but likes her teachers, has a loving close family and no friends - well, just one - another social outcast. She fitted into her largely Hispanic school population like a square peg in a round hole and sat even more squarely on the bottom rung of the social ladder. At the suggestion of her mother, Maya chose to take on ex-model Betty's tips for 1950s teens and then document her progress in a journal for the duration of her 8th grade journey.
This nonfiction book has already created such a following and been such a sensation with other young teens that the screen rights have been picked up and a film is being planned (Dreamworks October 2013 news release) despite not yet being published.
As Maya works her way through Betty's chapters and follows to the letter the instructions on dressing - pearls, white gloves, girdles, polished shoes, make up - a little Vaseline on your eyes, red or pink lipstick, posture - don't slouch, shoulders squared and back straight, and more, her peers have no idea that she is conducting a secret experiment but see a gradual transformation from awkward shy caterpillar to happy confident butterfly.
It's certainly not every 13 year old girl who would be brave enough to endure taunts and disbelief for an entire year but Maya handles it all with an aplomb that is admirable and reflective.
Maya writes with candid humour, and witty insight - her style is mature and engaging. Interspersed with Maya's own words are snippets of Betty Cornell's wisdom, photos and some very funny Maya-isms on the subject of popularity and its definition.
While there are possibly not many girls who would dare to follow such an extreme 'makeover' this book has much to offer any girl struggling to make sense of their turbulent teens.
FaceBook page: Popular the Memoir
News article
Sue Warren

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