REVIEW: Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen

Popular, Maya Van Wagenen, Tween Books, Young Adult books, Bookishly SpeakingTITLE: Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek

AUTHOR: Maya Van Wagenen

PUBLISHER: Dutten Juvenile

RELEASE DATE: April 15th, 2014


TYPE: Hardcover

SOURCE: Library

RATING: ★★★ 1/2


Stuck at the bottom of the social ladder at pretty much the lowest level of people at school who “aren’t paid to be here,” Maya Van Wagenen decided to begin a unique social experiment: spend the school year following a 1950s popularity guide, written by former teen model Betty Cornell. Can curlers, girdles, Vaseline, and a strand of pearls help Maya on her quest to be popular?

The real-life results are painful, funny, and include a wonderful and unexpected surprise—meeting and befriending Betty Cornell herself. Told with humor and grace, Maya’s journey offers readers of all ages a thoroughly contemporary example of kindness and self-confidence.

BEWARE: This review may contain spoilers!


Well, where do I begin? I suppose I will start by saying that I picked up this book as it is currently our tween book club selection of the month and I was interested to see how Maya’s experiment turned out. I made it to page 23 where Maya has already read Betty Cornell’s popularity guide and states she has packed for herself a half a sandwich, some applesauce and a hard boiled egg for lunch. Seriously? My feminist self was already screaming internally. I put the book down and walked away from it not sure I could endure it without ripping everything apart.

I ended up having a conversation with my co-worker and fellow library assistant about the book as she was the one who made the selection for the tween book club. I pleaded with her, “Please. Tell me the girl has an epiphany somewhere and she does not actually believe that losing a few pounds and wearing ridiculous outfits to school will make her popular. I beg you.” BreAnn assured me that she would…eventually. I had to know that much in order to continue.

So, I picked up the book yet again, attempted to take off my feminist goggles and enter the world of a young, socially outcast, self-proclaimed geeky girl and try to remember what it felt like to be roaming the halls full of people I was certain had it better off than I did. I will be honest in saying it was difficult to do and I find myself wondering if I was such an outcast in middle school. I don’t think I was on the fringes of social status then but, perhaps, I just didn’t care. The memories are somewhat fuzzy these days.

So… Maya, is a young girl who loves to write and is about to embark on her eighth grade year of middle school when she stumbles upon Betty Cornell’s Teen-age Popularity Guide. Betty Cornell was a teenage fashion model in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. As a well-known junior model, Betty was invited to conduct good grooming classes that ultimately led to a career as an author of advice books. (Is your feminist radar beeping yet? Mine is loud and clear.) Maya’s mother has the bright idea that Maya should read the book and follow it’s tips while documenting her experiences as a writing project. So it begins.

The chapters in Cornell’s book include topics such as Figure Problems, Hair, Modeling Tricks, Skin Problems & Makeup, Clothes & What to Wear Where, Good Grooming, Money, and Popular Attitude: Look Pretty-Be Pretty… (beep beep beep!) Maya decides to tackle each chapter in the various months of school and the book is broken down month by month to correlate with Cornell’s advice.

It was difficult for me to read about such a young girl being concerned with her figure enough to only eat half a sandwich, applesauce and a hard boiled egg for lunch but I suppose we have to face reality–there are plenty out there that do it (or worse) routinely. It was equally hard for me to read about her doing exercises described in Betty’s book–as if a girl in 8th grade really needs to be concentrating on her figure! Of all things! But, I continued to read. Maya lost three pounds and ended her diet. Thank goodness.

The book is full of quotations from Cornell’s original book and I just have to share some of these beauties with you because they make me absolutely cringe.

As for taunts from your friends–and they will taunt you–keep your chin up and your weight down.”

“Beautiful hair is about the most important thing a girl has…pretty hair can always overcome the handicap of a not-so-pretty face… Your hair can make or break you.”

“One of the most-looked-at pictures any teen has taken is the picture for her school yearbook.” (Notice the emphasis that it’s only important to girls.)

“Above all, do not change your hairstyle before your appointment–such experiments may turn out too disastrously, and you don’t want to go down in history looking like a freak.”

The book is full of of these little gems; don’t you just love it? (P.S. that’s sarcasm, folks.)

While I understand the nature of the experiment I have to wonder just how much of it was real. Much of the antics feel contrived. The memoire is written from the perspective that the book is Maya’s secret and she hasn’t told anyone but her parents about the social experiment but I have to wonder, at least a little bit, if the rest of the student body wasn’t in on it. Because, let’s face it, the vintage get ups she dons are not attractive to say the least. We all know it’s possible to do cute vintage (just look at the styles on Modcloth) but it felt like she intentionally picked out the most obnoxious items to wear and write about. In other words, it could have been more subtle but I don’t think that’s what she was going for.

People snicker as I walk by, but I don’t really care. I guess Betty helped me learn how to laugh at myself.

In the end, Maya does go on to say that, “Maybe real popularity comes from when you take time to listen to someone else. When you actually care about them.” Finally! Pearls, girdles (yes, she wore a girdle…seriously), ridiculous straw hats and white gloves be damned. Sadly, this revelation is anti-climatic at best and I get the distinct feeling that she’s known this all along but really needed something to write about to pursue her dream of being an author. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not out to rip on a fifteen year old published author, I simply mean that I think Maya was too intelligent to really believe any of that Betty Cornell crap to begin with.

I do like the overall message of the book in the end. It’s one of those books that, while the message is good, you’d want to be careful before passing it out to young kids and suggesting them to read it. I say this because if they should choose not to actually finish the book they may never get the full message Maya is detailing. While the message is there–small and meek in it’s display, it can be found. However, I think Maya missed a prime opportunity to encourage young readers to be themselves and accept themselves as they are–including physically. She mentions that the pearls and shenanigans were not what made her “popular” but she also doesn’t discredit the changes in her appearances either. So, there’s that.

All at once I realize that there is no ladder. We are all the same.

Additionally, I would like to add that it severely pisses me off that Betty Cornell has a newfound fame and her book has been republished for “a whole new generation of readers”. What?! Seriously?! I hope this is some sort of strange joke because no middle schoolers need to be reading about how important their hair is, and that makeup is necessary or that they need to lose weight. Absolutely fucking no. Pardon my language but this is something I stand firm on.

Ultimately, I would initially say it could be good for younger folks but only if it comes with a strong conversation about the treatment and expectation of women in modern society. I know it may seem heavy for someone that age but if they can learn about how to diet, where to get drugs, and how to give blowjobs on the internet then you might as well start early on telling them that women are equal species and should not be judged on appearances alone.

Okay, I’m done ranting now. Has anyone else read this book?



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