Hello, dear internet friends!
One thing I would love to do in my lifetime is write (and then publish) a book. This certainly isn’t a new dream for me; in fact, I spent a good chunk of the summer before I turned 19 putting together a book proposal. That particular project was never fully realized, but I still consider the time well-spent.
Fast-forward to today. I’m at a place now where I’m taking steps to make that dream a reality. Or perhaps I’m taking steps in preparation for taking steps to make that dream a reality. Either way, I decided a comfortable starting place would be to see what related YA/teen nonfiction books had come out since I last looked, as that’s the genre I imagine my future book project would fall under. After I gathered a list, I decided to start working my way through the titles. And then I realized I’d like to share my finds with you, in case you’d find them of interest. So today, I’m sharing with you my first pick, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen.
Popular is the true story of Maya’s eighth grade year, but the inspiration behind it came from a book written—and purchased—long before Maya was even born. That book is Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide, written by former teen model Betty Cornell and published in 1951. Years later, Maya’s dad purchased the interesting, now-vintage book at a thrift store. Years after that, the book made its way out of storage and into the hands of Maya—and so this journey begins.
At first, Maya simply finds the book “quirky,” but then her mom gives a suggestion: Maya could follow the book’s advice on how to become popular throughout her eighth grade year and write about what happens. Like many a middle schooler given advice by their mother, Maya initially rejects this idea. But Maya, by her account, has never had the experience of being popular; in her ranking of her school’s “popularity scale,” she places herself at “the lowest level of people at school who weren’t paid to be here.” She decides to give the experiment ago.
And go all in she does. Each month, Maya tests out a different category of Betty’s advice. She tries everything from wearing Vaseline on her eyelids to sitting at each table in the cafeteria. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Maya gets mixed results and reactions along the way, but by the end, Maya is transformed—and I’d definitely say that the ending is a happy one.
Maya’s story was very relatable to me. In middle school (and high school), I did have good friends, but I definitely didn’t consider myself popular. And for much of that time, I really, really wanted to be. I thought, misguidedly, that being popular was the key to ultimate happiness.
Looking back on that time in my life gives me a kind of achy feeling. I can’t help but think, Man, with everything I know now, I could do that time so much better. Although I never experienced life on the “popular” side, I can say that over time, that label ceases to matter, but good friendships don’t. Also, the things that help me establish real connections with others—being in the moment, listening, sharing my joy—also make me feel happier, and again, have nothing to do with labels. That all may sound kind of cheesy, but it’s so true, it hurts.
This book definitely ignited that ache, but in a good way. Because—without giving too much away—Maya proves my line of thinking right. She puts the conventional notion of popularity to the test, and in the process, learns what that word really means to her, as well as how she wants to live her life going forward. Which is a lot for any one person to do in a year, let alone someone also navigating the halls of middle school. But Maya does it—and, thankfully, she brings us along on the journey.
So, whether you are a preteen or teen, or you know one, or you just want to vicariously ease your own ache about what might have been, I recommend this book. It’s a pretty quick read—and a powerful one.
P.S. If you have any recommendations for my teen nonfiction reading list, let me know in the comments! Or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!