Popular by Maya Van Wagenen


by Maya Van Wagenen
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Eighth grader Maya’s dad finds a vintage (1950’s) etiquette book for young ladies and her mom encourages her to find some kernels of truth in it. Maya decides to challenge herself to follow the book exactly, no matter how silly or outdated, for her entire 8th grade year, and keep a journal. After all, she figures, she’s already at the bottom of the popularity pyramid; what does she have to lose?

I was prepared for this one to be terrible at worst, and saccharine at best. But it turns out Maya is a gifted writer (or, if I’m being cynical, had a lot of help – but I suspect most of it was natural talent) and also had some interesting insights into the nature of teenage popularity and what are enduring pieces of wisdom. For example, the girdle seems unnecessary and very of-its-time, but the idea of grooming your body and pushing yourself to be outgoing and engage new people in conversation seems pretty solid. Her transformation into a well-liked and, yes, popular, kid was gradual enough to be realistic (there are some setbacks) and yet the month she spent reaching out to other people held the most change. I also loved at the end of the book when she interviewed all the kids at all levels of popularity and no one seemed to think they were at the top. It seemed very much like a “grass is always greener” situation.

Spoiler alert: About halfway through the year, you learn that Maya’s family is moving in the summer, and of course her risk-taking only increased, but I also couldn’t help but wonder if some of the responses to her changed when kids knew she was leaving. Her relationship with her best friend also changes a little bit and we get some insights into other things going on in her life in this year (a favorite teacher gets terminally ill; some stuff about her adorable family, etc), which add to the depth. Maya shares some probably deeply embarrassing details relevant to her insights, which charmed the hell out of me.

Maya is probably a senior in high school now, or maybe out of high school, as it looks like she was 15 in 2014 (so born in 1999). It looks like she’s worked on the screenplay for turning her book into a movie, so I’m interested to see how that turns out, if it does (looks to have been in development for a while now so who knows). I’m also curious how her life turns out, and how high school has gone for her in a new town. Our teen librarian chose this book for the middle school book club and I think it would pair nicely with Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli for an interesting discussion on the nature of popularity and socialization.


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