Popularity: The Teenager's Enigma

Ameena NaqviSeptember 6, 2016Human DignityMedia
Popularity: The Teenager's Enigma
“I guess I should probably take a moment to define what popular means as best I can. It's a complicated word. I know what it's not. It's not sitting alone or being made fun of. It's not feeling ashamed of how you look and constantly wanting to hide in corners, wishing you could disappear. It's not what I feel right now.”
- Maya Van Wagenen

At the beginning of Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, Maya Van Wagenen, the real-life protagonist and author of this true story, has no experience with popularity. Instead, she is regularly bullied and often deals with insecurity and anxiety at the bottom of her middle school’s social ladder. The excerpt above shows the loneliness she feels every day at school. She is used to being invisible and trying her best to fit in.

From this humble beginning, Popular is a book that weaves an inspirational tale about Maya's road to confidence, self-discovery, and courage. Her journey begins when she finds Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide, a book originally written by a famous model in 1951. Her mother then inspires her to start a social experiment in which she spends the school year following this guide book. Can vintage 1950s wisdom turn this hobbit-loving nerd into a popular icon in 2013? The real-life reactions are not only hilarious but also set Maya on a path to self-confidence and courage.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the description of Maya’s social experiment. From putting on a girdle every day to sitting at different cafeteria tables, nothing is out of bounds in her quest for popularity. Maya makes sure to follow Betty Cornell's exact advice. The book portrays an accurate reaction to the changes she makes.

Popular addresses the issue of cliques in middle schools. Sometimes, students form a group of friends and then exclude others. These cliques can make students feel alienated and often lead to bullying. In middle schools today, you can see examples of these social groups in lunchrooms, where there seems to be an unspoken rule about who sits where. These regulations often create boundaries between students and discourage them from ever moving away from their social groups, which is seen as social suicide. However, rules don't stop Maya as she bravely begins to visit all the various cliques in the lunchroom and make more friends.

Lack of popularity isn't the only hardship Maya overcomes: the book describes her life in a poverty-stricken border town between Texas and Mexico. There she witnesses a drug war; at one point her school is put on lockdown due to a drug operation. One of her sisters struggles with autism, and the other died in childbirth. Yet despite all these struggles, Maya remains optimistic. This book not only teaches readers about popularity but also shows Maya's resilience when overcoming other serious difficulties.

Popular also shows how society’s ideal image of a popular girl has changed. In the 50s, a teenager could achieve popularity by wearing pearls or curling her hair, but as time has passed styles have gradually shifted. Slowly, gloves and stockings have gone out of fashion and been replaced by skinny jeans and crop tops. Although trends have evolved, however, the limelight has still been on appearances rather than personality. Additionally, popularity always seems to be about what clubs and teams people join — typically the jocks and cheerleaders are seen as being at the top of the scale while the “theater geeks” or “science nerds” are thought to be near the bottom.

Because of these perceptions, students develop a fixed mindset about the school’s popularity scale. They get trapped in the school’s social bubble, socializing with the same people and not making any new friends. However, Popular proves that by stepping out of your comfort zone and breaking social protocol you can make new friends and experience true acceptance. In the end, Maya’s story shows that popularity can be achieved through compassion towards others.

I rate Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek four out of five stars, because I feel it has a strong message that many readers can relate to. It’s a huge page-turner and challenges readers to think about the true meaning of popularity. However, parts of the book are very fixated on Maya changing her appearance rather than her attitude. I feel this detracts from the story’s overall moral, which is that popularity can't be achieved based on your appearance. Personally, I think that Maya should have just focused on changing her attitude.

I enjoyed the diary style of the book and the excerpts from Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide. The included pictures helped me visualize what was happening. Although the theme and message of Popular are very powerful, the reading level and vocabulary are pretty simple. However, I think that the character development is very moving. Maya doesn’t have a sudden transformation in which she became popular overnight; the book describes her struggle and illustrates the realistic, gradual effects of her social experiment.

I would recommend this book to readers 13 and up. Although the vocabulary may seem simple, the story line and message are more suitable for an older audience. The moral of Popular, while perfect for young readers, can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of age. And although some might assume that only female readers would enjoy a novel about a middle school girl, readers of any gender can relate to and enjoy the book's theme and life lessons.

SPOILER ALERT! Towards the end of the book, Maya develops her own definition of popularity: “who you are and how you treat others.” Usually, people think of popularity as blending into society's stereotypes about beauty and success, but Maya believes that to be loved and admired by others you must be compassionate and caring. Personally, I find that this is a great way to look at popularity, and I'll definitely try to apply Maya's advice to my own life.

Maya’s writing is inspiring and motivational. She starts her journey by trying to upgrade her social standing and finishes by improving her mindset, confidence, and attitude. No matter how embarrassed she must have been to dress like a 1950s teen for a whole school year, Maya is to be admired for her courage and her commitment to Betty Cornell’s advice.

Ameena Naqvi is in the ninth grade at Arbour Lake School in Calgary, Canada. Her hobbies include drawing, playing the flute, and reading. She has a passion for music and writing.