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

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Dutton Juvenile, $18.99, ISBN-10 0525426817, April 2014

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?

I’m thrilled that Maya Van Wagenen has started her writing career at the age of 15 because that means this bright young talent has many productive decades ahead of her. She’s a revelation.

Van Wagenen’s dry humor and keen insight into the junior high social hierarchy is part blogger, part Laurie Halse Anderson. As for the project, she stays on track with self-control most adults would love to have, often throwing the very social standing she’s chasing to the wind in order to follow some of the more outdated advice in the popularity manual. Along the way, she learns important lessons: popular kids are exactly like everyone else, almost no one ever feels popular, and the easiest way to be popular doesn’t involve beauty makeovers. Her greatest takeaway, an essential lesson for anyone of any age, is that the way to popularity is through kindness and willingness to give new people a chance to become friends.

While the paper doll cover and cute premise might fool you into thinking this is yet another fluffy, gimmicky project novel, let’s be clear on one point: Van Wagenen undertook this project while living in Brownsville, Texas, right on the Mexican border. Sometimes she worries about her makeup, sometimes she’s huddled in the choir room, terrified, during a school lockdown. Sometimes she worries about getting a date, sometimes she worries that the three drug arrests at her school might have been people she knows. She definitely remains focused on telling the story of her project and is overwhelmingly positive about her fellow students, but the reader is frequently reminded that this adorable story of self-discovery is happening against the backdrop of a drug war.

I would love to have Van Wagenen speak at my library someday. She is an inspiration. (Full disclosure: She’s also an Ugly Betty fan, and I do not have enough people to talk to about Ugly Betty!)

Recommend to: Junior high and high school students (just be ready for giggles about the double-bum effect of the girdle)

To buy or not to buy: A great selection for any teen collection. Viva Maya!

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