I recently spent a week house-sitting for my parents while they enjoyed Easter break in Arizona. We all had dinner together when they came back last weekend, and my mom couldn’t wait to tell me about a new book she had read about in their hotel’s USA Today.
Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek was written by Maya van Wagenen, who is being described by book reviewers everywhere as a “breakout” teenage author. Maya is, to put it mildly, spectacular. The summer before her eighth grade year, she finds an old book in a closet in her home: the 1958 bestseller Betty Cornell’s Glamour Guide For Teens. Encouraged by her eccentric family, Maya decides to follow the book’s advice to the letter over the course of one school year to see if rag curls, girdles and 1950s fashion can help improve her standing on the vicious eighth grade social ladder.
Of course, as a former braces-wearing, acne-riddled grade eight student with aspirations of becoming a writer, I identified wholeheartedly with Maya. But never in a million years would my 14-year-old self have had the poise and gumption to follow through on her social experiment for an entire year.
Grade eight was hard enough at a small school in a close-knit semi-rural community in Alberta, Canada. We were, on the whole, genuinely nice kids and school certainly felt like a safe space. Even though I was an ugly duckling (with photographic proof) going into my grade eight year, I always had lots of friends. (Getting my braces off at 13, a course of Accutane at age 14, learning how to use makeup properly at 15 and the discovery of a magical device known as a hair straightener at age 17 meant that things got a lot better, eventually. I was also smart, which wouldn’t have helped at every school, but it did at mine.) But isn’t it funny how there’s always a piece of you – a little tiny piece – that remembers exactly what it is like to be an awkward grade eight kid? It never really goes away, does it? Maybe that’s why I identified so much with my younger high school students when I was student teaching last month.
But in another setting, like Maya’s school (located in Texas close to the USA-Mexico border and home to gang members, pregnant seventh-graders, drug dealers, frequent lockdowns and more violence on a single Friday afternoon than I probably saw in 12 years of public education combined), I might not have fared so well. Maya and I probably would have been friends, though. She would have been my really brave, creative, well-spoken, story-writing friend. And I identified completely with her.
Maya is frank, honest, charming, funny and – best of all – insightful. As an adult, and as an almost-teacher, she probably would be one of my favourite and most memorable students. I think she’s at her best when she comments on her ongoing definition of what it means to be popular – and I think it is interesting how this definition changes over the course of her school year. Everyone who was ever an awkward grade eight girl, or who knows any junior high-age kids, should read this book. It’s absolutely perfect.