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Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek

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A touchingly honest, candidly hysterical memoir from breakout teen author Maya Van Wagenen

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?

The real-life results are painful, funny, and include a wonderful and unexpected surprise—meeting and befriending Betty Cornell herself. Told with humor and grace, Maya’s journey offers readers of all ages a thoroughly contemporary example of kindness and self-confidence.


272 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2014

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About the author

Maya Van Wagenen

2 books328 followers
Maya Van Wagenen is fifteen years old. When she was eleven, her family moved to Brownsville, Texas, the setting of Popular. When not hunched over a desktop writing, Maya enjoys reading, British television, and chocolate. She now lives with her parents and two siblings in rural Georgia. She is a sophomore in high school but still shares a room with her sixth-grade brother. Remarkably, they have not yet killed each other.

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5 stars
4,032 (34%)
4 stars
4,508 (38%)
3 stars
2,335 (20%)
2 stars
537 (4%)
1 star
180 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,324 reviews
Profile Image for Rachel Hartman.
Author 14 books3,821 followers
April 15, 2014
Full disclosure: my agent sent this to me to read. I told him I might, if I had time. I didn't imagine I'd have time, and this didn't really sound like my kind of thing.

Well, I think this line from one of my reply e-mails says it best: "I wasn't going to read it, and then I couldn't stop reading it."

This wins on voice, darlings. Witty, wry, honest, heartfelt voice. Of all the elements of writing, I really feel like that's the one you can't fake.
Profile Image for Kristina Horner.
157 reviews1,812 followers
January 5, 2016
This book was so delightful, and so much better than I expected it to be! Maya's writing is a treat, and the message in this book - while absolutely perfect for younger readers - still rang true for me as well in my late twenties. I am so impressed this was written by a 15 year old. It's hard to believe, but the voice is so genuine and honest it must be true. :)
Profile Image for emma.
1,825 reviews48.3k followers
August 14, 2021
i (in case you weren't clued in by the fact that i am spending my friday night writing reviews of books i read 5 years ago) am not what anyone would describe as "popular."

while i have hated every kind of social interaction for too long to want to change that, and therefore would never want to use this book as any kind of how-to guide, i did think it would have a certain charm.

but ultimately it felt like it was written by a teenager. which it was. and if this were adult-me saying that, that would be mean, but teenager-me thought it first.

part of that series i'm doing where i review books i read a long time ago and it becomes increasingly ill-advised
Profile Image for Sophia.
270 reviews2,036 followers
July 16, 2016
3.5 stars

it's hard to review this book because i want to review it like i review novels (works of fiction), but that wouldn't be very fair. overall, this book, in the end, shares a good message, despite having some issues with telling it in the most effective way.
228 reviews
August 18, 2014
I feel a little guilty giving this book 2 stars. The author is young, and obviously a very nice, driven person who will go far. I wouldn't want her to stumble across this and feel badly. But I use this website to keep track of my reads and my thoughts, so I had to be honest. And then I saw that Steven Spielberg had bought the rights to her book, and I didn't feel so bad anymore.

I picked this book up because I was looking for something quick and mindless. It had such great ratings, I thought this would be a great read. But it was formulaic and boring, and a bit too sweet. The author was just too nice, she didn't seem like a real teenager... Ironic, since this was a memoir. It also started off on a bad note... This girl seems to have a great head on her shoulders, but the first chapter involved a middle schooler dieting. She included pictures, this is not a girl with a weight problem. I guess this upsets me a lot more now that I have a daughter and do not want to see her have this struggle with her body. Everything after was a bit boring and couldn't really hold my attention, and it had to force myself to finish it.

ETA: I've read other reviewers call this book emotional manipulative, and I think that's right. The author just didn't feel real. Maybe some of her more negative thoughts were edited out, but I think I would have connected with and enjoyed this book much more if they were included.
Profile Image for Fenia.
254 reviews457 followers
May 31, 2015
I flew through the pages of this book. It sucked me in and i couldn't get out. It is such a beautiful book. Maya is so brave and strong and talented and knowing that she did all those things,that THIS is her life..its brilliant and genious. I LOVE IT.

I used to be that girl. The unpopular girl. (maybe still am,just dont care,or maybe i do) And this book is amazing. The courage it takes to follow through her plan,the tests she went through...were all worth it in the end. You can see her ('see' yes,because there are actual photos inside.How cool is that?) becoming this condident lady and it feels really nice. This book is so SO good!! Everyone should read,especially if you're still going through high school.

Maya is an incredible,ballsy writer and i wish we see more of her in the near future. ♥
Profile Image for Colette.
562 reviews51 followers
May 1, 2015
All middle-school girls should read this book! Maya creates a relatable voice and acts as a role model for all adolescents facing the same social issues as she faced. Thank you Maya for being brave enough to share your story and in turn inspire others to put themselves out there and have the courage to face rejection, but more than that, to be accepted as their true selves!
Profile Image for Alice-Elizabeth (Prolific Reader Alice).
1,151 reviews153 followers
November 25, 2018
I found an ARC of this one day by chance, after this was sat on my shelf for over two years, I finally sat down and read it in two sittings. It was such an interesting read, following the life of Maya, who goes to school on the US/Mexico boarder and isn't popular. She then learns about a guide written by Betty Cornell, published in the 1950s and having tips on how to be popular. Maya decides to follow the guide, with a chapter tested each month. In the process, she learns about fashion, hairstyles, beauty and making new friends. I really enjoyed Maya's perspective, an easy autobiographical read to get into without feeling bored. I could relate to some of the content regarding having crushes and being bullied. I would recommend this!
Profile Image for Negin.
608 reviews151 followers
July 12, 2020
This book should be read after Betty Cornell’s Teen-age Popularity Guide. It’s a cute book and the author is amiable and sweet. While reading it, I kept laughing at myself since as a rule I try to avoid memoirs written by anyone younger than their forties. This one was written by an eighth grader! I read it out of curiosity and am happy that I did, although I cannot recommend it to anyone other than girls in that age group.

My favorite quote:

“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 actually are. Real popularity is kindness and acceptance. It is about who you are, and how you treat others.”

Profile Image for Adiee.
50 reviews41 followers
May 6, 2016
Книга за порастването на едно момиче...
Profile Image for Kristen (kaymaldo).
52 reviews13 followers
March 5, 2016
I was really excited going into this book because I had heard a lot of great things about it. I think the concept is really smart and interesting, but to be honest it fell short for me.

The beginning of the book was kind of boring and there were a few moments where I felt like the author was judging people who didn't do things the way she did. For instance there's a part where she says she wasted a bunch of hours away reading a bunch of teen fashion websites and should have spent her time reading classic works of literature instead.

Her journal entries were also a bit disjointed. Some were about her journey following Betty's popularity book, but many were about mundane things going on in her life that weren't very noteworthy. It felt like they were trying to combine a social experiment with a memoir and make it really moving, but the problem was that there's not much to say in the life of this particular 8th grader.

The best part of the book for me had to be the part of the experiment where Maya sits at all the different lunch room tables and sees the reactions of the different cliques at school. That made my bring up my rating by a star because it seemed like the most important part of her experiment. I loved seeing the different answers from different cliques in her school about who was popular and what popularity meant.

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Profile Image for Kathy.
358 reviews
April 18, 2014
Cute. It's an interesting idea, and it's very well done. Who'da thunk pearls would be one of the items that translated well down the generations? And there is a really strong "message" (don't worry it's NOT a sermon, and there is no preaching) about the way we see ourselves and what it really means to be "popular". Did I say "well done"? I meant it.
Profile Image for Alison (AlisonCanRead).
513 reviews2 followers
September 10, 2016
Have you seen Popular gracing the shelves of your local bookstore? I picked it up, because it's been all over mine, along with the reissued copy of Betty Cornell's Popularity Guide, which Maya relied on for advice. Not only that, but Maya is in a bunch of teen magazines and even got a movie deal. I had to see what the hype was about. Popular is an enjoyable, quick read, but I also found its premise somewhat troubling and thus finished it with mixed feelings.

The basic premise of this book is that 8th grader Maya follows a popularity guidebook from the 1950s. Each chapter of the book reflects a month Maya spent focusing on a particular part of herself to change. Things like hair, makeup, weight, posture, and eventually personality.

My first complaint is that this book is focused so much on altering one's appearance. Semi-spoiler: Maya concludes that her increase in popularity over her 8th grade year is actually due to working on her personality - on being open and nice to everyone. So the message of beauty from the inside is there, but doesn't get as many pages.

I wonder what I would have thought of this book when I was 13. Maya looks and sounds like a very typical awkward 8th grader. In fact, with her glasses, braces, dark hair, and a tan complexion, she looks so much like me in 8th grade that it's almost scary.

As an 8th grader, I desperately wanted to be popular. I literally dreamed about it. As an adult, I realize that 8th graders are inherently evil, surpassed only by the cruelty of 7th graders. If she'd given herself a year or two, she would have found a comfortable social home without having to change herself. Also, she did have a best friend at the start of 8th grade - a time when I had 0 friends. They are still friends at the end of the book, but not as close. I think she should have appreciated what she had rather than looking for something better, a mistake I often made as a teenager.

I wish the book had given us greater insight into what Maya liked to do for fun other than try to become popular and write. I learned more about her from the book flap than I did the book itself. Rather than portray herself as a normal, geeky girl, she tried to tug at our heartstrings by playing up all the bad things that were happening in her life. It's the downfall of many a college applicant. Regular life is too boring, so you have to make everything seem like life or death.

She tells us about the illness and eventual death of a teacher. She tells us about the death of her infant sister 8 years prior that apparently permanently changed her psyche. She tells us about lockdowns at her admittedly scary-sounding Mexican border-town school. At all these things, she describes herself as crying. This girl cries so freaking much. I am not as sympathetic to her tears as I should be, because I felt like she wrote that she was crying, because she's not a good enough writer to adequately describe her emotional state. If she was indeed crying as often as she said, I hope her parents took her to a doctor because that's not normal. My middle school experience (apart from various deaths) was a lot worse than what she described and I didn't cry nearly that much. She needs to develop a thicker skin.

On the plus side, the book was very readable, fairly well-written, and quite amusing. I particularly liked that Maya didn't present herself as a fairy tale transformation. Not all of her changes were received well. In fact most weren't (honestly, she looked so ridiculous in her attempts to dress "classically elegant" that 8th grade me would have laughed at her too). It seemed quite realistic. Also, Maya seems like a cool girl with a good head on her shoulders. She was going about this with good intentions. I can't be too hard on her for that.

Popular is a book worth flipping through to see how 1950s advice can be translated to the modern day. Plus it'll take you back to 8th grade - a year that I'm sure all of you would love to relive. I can't fully support it, because I dislike the idea that Maya needed to change herself at all and also wish she'd told use more about herself instead of focusing on the irrelevant drama in her life.

Also, I can't shake the feeling that this is a publicity stunt. Doing something weird and then writing a memoir about it is a popular choice these days, but I don't know that it's wise to thrust a teenage girl into that position. Plus I wonder if the book was at least partially ghost-written. I didn't see a reference to a writing assistant, but I'm always suspicious. I wouldn't buy this one, but definitely grab it at the library or skim it at the bookstore and let me know what you think!

Rating: 3 / 5
Profile Image for Darla.
3,345 reviews526 followers
December 8, 2014
I am so glad I decided to read this book. My mom had a copy of the book by Betty Cornell that Maya used in her search for popularity. I remembered looking through it as a teenager. The truths that Maya discovered during her experiment can be applied to all stages of life. A popularity tip from Maya: "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 actually are. Real popularity is kindness and acceptance. It is about who you are and how you treat others."
Profile Image for Hannah.
21 reviews19 followers
August 21, 2015
This book gives a whole new insight on the hell hole that is High School. We follow a girl who is at the bottom of her schools "popular" hierarchy, till one day when she finds a book about how to be popular taking place in the 50's. She uses the skills the book has and applies them to modern day life. She goes through this whole self- discovering and meanings chapter in her life and the character growth is astounding! It shows what the definition of popular has different meanings to everyone and how anyone can be popular.
Profile Image for Meg.
1,614 reviews
February 23, 2015
Was the writing solid? Yes.
Was the concept clever? Yes.
Would I recommend this to a 12-year-old girl? Absolutely.

Did I enjoy reading it? Not really, not by the end. As to be expected, it reads like the journal of an 8th-grade girl, which exhausted me by the end. I'd totally recommend this to certain readers, but my enthusiasm for it waned about halfway through.
Profile Image for Fernanda Granzotto.
590 reviews113 followers
November 2, 2017
2.5 stars
This book has really good and important points, but unfortunately I could not connect with the characters.
But it's a book that I recommend you try to read, maybe you'll enjoy it more than I did.
Profile Image for Racheli Zusiman.
1,443 reviews47 followers
November 17, 2017
ספר מקסים מקסים מקסים המבוסס על יומן אמיתי שניהלה הכותבת בכיתה ח'. הוא מתוק, נוגע ללב ובעל מסרים מאוד יפים, וממש נהניתי לקרוא אותו. מומלץ לכל בנות הנוער באשר הן.
Profile Image for Jeann (Happy Indulgence) .
1,006 reviews3,592 followers
April 15, 2014
This review appears on Happy Indulgence. Check it out for more reviews!

Popular is an incredible, hilarious, and achingly honest and emotional memoir about popularity. It asks and answers, what is the definition of being popular? Is it to have the most friends, be the most respected and known at school, is it to be the prettiest or the one that is best at sports?

Maya Van Wagenen’s journey is a real life social experiment and she’s written her day to day accounts of following a vintage guide to popularity - Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide. Each chapter, she follows a different part of the Guide, and slowly works her way up to the major changes she’ll have to make. It’s sprinkled with charming photos of her and her family, and Maya’s honesty, wit and bravery shines through her words and her photos.

At the start, Maya is an insecure teenager at the bottom of her schools’ social ladder. She feels fat and ugly and gets teased and bullied by countless people at school. Seeing her transformation into a confident, self-assured girl who makes a mark on her peers was extraordinary. From changing her hair everyday, to wearing vintage 1950s gear to school, to sitting at different tables dominated by the different subgroups at school, nothing is out of bounds in her quest for popularity. No matter how embarrassing it is, Maya is to be admired for her bravery and devotion to Betty Cornell’s advice.

“Maya, go play with those kids over there. They look nice.”
“No,” I’d protest.
“Well, why not?”
“Because I don’t like the other children.”
That statement has shaped my entire life.

The glimpses of the rough neighbourhood on the Mexican border that Maya lived in were fascinating, as a world so different from mine. Mexican drug lords making a deal? No problem. Pregnant teens and gangster members at her school? Sure. The school under threat from an armed assailant? Just another walk in the park.

This book made me laugh (Hobbit monologue anyone), it made me cry, and it made me root for Maya and hope for the best. I absolutely LOVED this book for the inspirational message behind it. It helps us understand that things are never what we perceive them to be and if we take time to find out about the wonderful people around us, we will be rewarded with the same respect and consideration too.

Maya’s journey was an inspirational one, and her achievement of being a published author at 15 is amazing. Her memoir hits home that no matter how impossible the task is, if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything.

For anyone who ever felt unsure of themselves, this book is for you.

Thank you so much to Penguin Teen Australia for bringing this book into my hands at PTA Live, because I never would have have heard about it otherwise!
Profile Image for Jessica J..
1,020 reviews1,962 followers
March 12, 2015
This girl's amazing. I know that she probably had some editorial help, but I still can't believe a thirteen-year-old girl can write so well. Thirty-year-old Jessica is jealous, and the ghost of thirteen-year-old Jessica is crying her eyes out somewhere deep inside me. I wish I'd had this back then. It would have been a really good thing for me, I think.

I had a really unique high school experience. I went to a small, rural school district where almost everyone was somebody’s cousin. If there were serious clique issues in my graduating class, I was completely unaware of them. I wasn’t a particularly social teen, so it’s possible that I was just oblivious but the social strata I experienced was primarily made up of what we called “rutters” (the poor kids you might otherwise think of as rednecks) and everyone else. It might have been a lot harder if you were considered a “rutter,” and I know it was a lot harder for the few minorities and gay kids, but otherwise social status wasn’t a huge part of the conversation. It’s not like everyone was friends or we existed in some teenage utopia or anything, but we didn’t have the strictly defined cliques you’re used to seeing in media portrayals of high school.

All that being said, I did spend a lot of time thinking about being “cool” and fitting in. I was shy and socially awkward. I had a hard time making conversation with people and often resorted to sarcasm as a defense mechanism. In retrospect, I probably came off more as a jerk than as an insecure girl but it’s really hard to put yourself out there in such a confident way. It’s still something I’m working on in my thirties. That’s why thirteen-year-old Maya is so impressive.

Maya describes herself as living on the bottom rung of popularity – above only the people who are paid to be at school. She hangs out with her small group of Social Outcasts, all of whom mostly just try to keep their heads down and get by. Then one day, she finds an old copy of the sixty-year-old book Betty Cornell’s Guide to Teenage Popularity and decides to follow the advice inside for her entire eighth-grade year and write about the experience. She does things like follow specific haircare and skincare routines, dresses like a 1950s teenager, and learns how to go out and talk to the kids she’s always been scared of.

Maya strikes me as what we old fogies would call “precocious” – I mean, she managed to get a book published by the time she turned fifteen. And she had the stones to undertake this kind of project in the first place. Not many adults would be brave enough to walk up to total strangers and make conversation. The lessons that Maya ultimately learns—popularity isn’t so much about your clothes or your hair as it about your attitude and the way you make others feel – may seem kind of obvious to anyone who’s out of school, but I super highly recommend this book for parents of daughters who are in middle or high school.
Profile Image for Katy Kelly.
2,092 reviews75 followers
April 15, 2014
Maya would have been my heroine at thirteen. I'm still socially awkward now, but have grown up to cope adequately with new people (though I avoid may social settings where I'd be uncomfortable). What every school needs is a Maya.

This is no-fiction, if you're wondering. A diary of teenager Maya's life. But not an ode to 'why haven't I got a boyfriend?'. This is her warts-and-all portrait of herself and her efforts to become more popular through one school year in middle school.

It impressed me from the cover that Maya is the youngest ever (non-actor) to be offered a film deal with large studio Dreamworks, and the writing inside impressed me more still. Maya writes with maturity, humour and insight. She goes on a quest to improve herself, to improve her social standing, and ends up improving her own self-knowledge, self-worth, and self-confidence. It's a moving transformation and one I smiled and warmed at.

The remarkable thing about the book (apart from Maya's tender age) is that Maya gets her inspiration to begin this journey from a fifty year old Guide to Popularity, written by a teen model of the 50s, Betty Cornell. Following her guidance on clothes, makeup, poise and eventually moving on to extending her social group by talking to those outside her usual circle, Maya gradually blossoms through her writing into a strong-minded and passionate young woman.

I loved this. Really, truly loved this. If only I could have been there to see this teenager fly in the face on convention and wear pearls, dare to sit with the Popular kids, talk to strangers everywhere she went.

Strictly Ballroom has always been one of my favourite films, and I hope Maya wouldn't mind this comparison. She includes photos of herself throughout, bravely. And from the start, it is obvious she is attractive but low in confidence. Like Fran, she has to push herself on others to get what she wants, like Fran she takes risks with her appearance and approaches the unapproachable. And even if her Scott doesn't appear (though at 13, that would be a miracle), she's both a swan inside and out, and a real role model herself.

I felt quite emotional when she contacted Betty Cornell herself, and have so much admiration for this young girl who stuck her neck out (with her loving family's support) and dared to do more than most teenagers I've ever met. Especially in America, the land of the Clique. And in her town too, so vivid here, with regular random drugs raids, teenage pregnancy and social deprivation.

A joy to read, one I will watch as a film, and one I want desperately to put on the UK National Curriculum for secondary school already!
10 reviews
May 3, 2014
Bought the book in the morning and finished reading it in the afternoon. Literally could not put it down (and had to reach for a Kleenex more often than a 52-year-old father of four might be expected to). Teenager Maya Van Wagenen lives and writes an engaging adventure -- a social experiment -- that will, doubtless, inspire many others. She manages to bring precociously-deep insight into the human condition through a fun, and often-dramatic, personal story.

I've often told young people that I wish I could go back to high school knowing what I do now about human nature. Maya actually does it, but as a middle-schooler willing to test out the principles of a 60-year-old book about teen popularity that her Dad found in a thrift store. It's easy to understand why this book, out since April 15, has already been optioned for a movie. I hope that the studio realizes that this is much more than a story of teenage angst -- that it has broad appeal.
Profile Image for Gabija.
235 reviews
May 13, 2015
I really, really loved this book. Not only was it incredibly relatable, it was also inspiring and funny and heart breaking and all sorts of other things that would take too long to list. And considering I'm in the same grade, if not age, as Maya was when she wrote this and when these events took place, I can relate to this on a whole additional level. I'm so happy that I read this now and not any time later, since I think that I can take things I've learned from this book and use them in the future. I don't think I'll ever be able to be as bold as Maya was, but I can try. I know that I'll remember this book and all the things I learned from it for a long time, and I only hope that others can experience the beauty behind the message shown <3
Profile Image for Abby.
850 reviews143 followers
September 10, 2016
Maya Van Wagenen is an inspiration to young girls everywhere. This girl followed a popularity guide from the 1950's to climb the social ladder and it ACTUALLY WORKED. I never considered myself popular in middle/high school, but when I was reading this book, I realized that I was totally Maya. While I didn't play sports and was a complete nerd, I was the person who was friendly with everyone: dweebs and preps alike. Everyone in my grade knew me and I was never picked on. So according to Maya's definition, I was popular! Maya, you're amazing and I'm glad you had the "balls" to do what very few teen girls would do.
Profile Image for Sara ➽ Ink Is My Sword.
560 reviews417 followers
September 15, 2015
4 Stars

+ I highly enjoyed, it was fun and interesting.
+ I liked how her perspective of popularity changed through the novel, I personaly don't like the idea of WANTING TO BE POPULAR so the annoyed me a little.
+ It was easy to read and quick.
+ I feel girls or boys in middle school would feel more related to it, because I am older I felt something were kind of inmature but I understood I was probably like that as well.

Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,324 reviews

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