I first heard about Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek when I read an article about its author, 15-year-old Maya Van Wagenen. So when I came across the book at my public library, I decided to read it, curious to see how well she could write, being younger than most authors.
Popular is a memoir documenting Van Wagenen’s eighth grade year. During that year, she decided to follow advice from a 1950s book about popularity written by Betty Cornell, a prominent fashion model of the time. The book contains advice on clothes, makeup, hair, posture and attitude. Although most of the trends about appearance seemed outdated, Maya took the risk by buying the items described in the book and wearing them in public.
Upon reading it, I was instantly transported back in time to my eighth grade year, which wasn’t my best year of school. Maya writes about her experiences of not fitting in, dealing with the obnoxious people in her class and the classes that she doesn’t necessarily want to take. Even though I finished eighth grade years ago, I could relate to Maya’s experiences so well, it made me think that she had somehow read my journal from those years.
The book itself follows a journal-like format, with each chapter covering one month in the school year. Pictures are included as visual aides, giving the reader an idea of what Maya wore and experienced during the time. There’s even a personal touch, with many of the chapters and photos including Maya’s family members.
One of the important messages of the book touches on how talking to people can break the ice and create the opportunity to make new friends. As part of her experiment, Maya sat with all the different cliques in her school during lunch time, even the ones that intimidated her. She talks about breaking the invisible walls of cliques by interacting with people outside of her friend group. Her main point emphasizes on how most people are too afraid to take the first step and socializing. Recalling how shy I was in eighth grade, it made me wish I had had the chance to do that. Maya herself is initially shy but became more outgoing as a result of following that advice.
Maya’s final popularity tip on page 254 reads “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 actualy are. Real popularity is kindness and acceptance. It is about who you are, and how you treat others.”
I’m excited to see what’s next from Maya Van Wagenen. If she can write a book this well at only 15, I can only imagine what her future writing career will bring

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