Book Review: Popular by Maya Van Wagenen


My skepticism of this book shadowed me until the first page, but once I was a couple pages in, Maya’s story engulfed me.IMG_20140901_215507_223

I met Maya at the Decatur Book Festival this year and my friend and I got her book signed to us. It was super interesting, not only because of her coveted author status, but also because she’s only 15. Guys, that’s younger than me. And I’m sitting over here patting myself on the back for having the dedication to keep up this blog.

Anyway, it’s an amazing feat. I cringe inwardly when I think about the countless hours typing on a computer and the unearthly amount of revisions that goes into creating a book. It’s frightening.

Yet somehow Maya managed to do not only this, but also make her memoir a social experiment in which every month she tried a new tip from a 1950’s popularity guide written by former model Betty Cornell. She found this book tucked away in her home, and with nothing to lose in her 8th grade year, Maya courageously went out on a limb and followed the advice exactly. And yes, this means the usual advice of eat healthy to lose weight and look good or be friendly to everyone around you, but it also entails the ’50’s era of always wearing pearls or making sure a girdle is an essential clothing piece.

The book is obviously more focused on her life and the reactions to her experiment than the writing style. It’s a really simple and easy read, and the reader can definitely tell a teenager wrote it. Her voice and opinions shine through her writing, and while it could have been written better in a literary sense, this transformation would have dulled her unique tone.

The actual plot is what captivates the reader. The change from a shy, introverted girl to an outgoing, friendly one is apparent as the year and book progress. Each chapter is a month, and within the chapters are the individual day where Maya logs all the reactions, obstacles, and feelings that went along with each challenge. I found myself silently cheering for her and hoping everything would work out while wondering who would oppose her.

It’s interesting to see the reactions of adolescents whose whole lives pretty much flow together in one river. Everyone wears similar clothes, thinks similar thoughts, does similar things, and talks in a similar way. There is minimal deviation because the gripping fear of bullies and social rejection plagues their minds daily. One shirt may be too radical to wear. They may let an unheard of accent slip out. A comment may be considered taboo. Anything that could rock the social structure or potentially push them out of their cliques is strictly off limits.

Maya decides to make a change, and while it may seem like an insignificant action, it’s really impacting her whole school. Since she decided on long shirts, white blouses, and pearls for school that day, another girl may feel comfortable enough to try out a style she loves but never had the bravery to wear. Simply stated it seems silly that so much of teenagers’ lives rely on the acceptance of their peers, but it’s a huge part of all of their lives.

As she takes the readers on her journey, I noticed that while the group of teens on a whole seems unaccepting and daunting, each individual actually praises Maya. She breaks down the social barriers by thinking of each kid instead of thinking of the monstrous group.

The theme is revealed in the end, but it’s no surprise. The book is called Popular, and it’s obvious in the results she’ll find out no matter what era you’re in, popularity may be boosted by superficial things, but it’s actually weighed by a person’s amiable manners, security with themselves, and amount of friends.

There are definite discontinuities between parts and seemingly random scene insertions, but it is her life and everything in it she shows the reader. It’s not a book you’ll want to read for the writing style. It’s a feel-good book based on plot, and while the ending is blatant from the first page, her journey on how she came to this conclusion and the real-world examples of the social experiment captivate the readers until the last sentence.

4 Stars


One thought on “Book Review: Popular by Maya Van Wagenen

  1. Pingback: Monthly Wrap-Ups: Autumn Leaves | Stealing Pages

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