Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya van Wagenen – A Review

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya van Wagenen – A ReviewPopular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek (A Memoir) by Maya van Wagenen
on 15th April 2014
Pages: 272
Format: Paperback

Click here to buy the book from AmazonBooktopiaBook DepositoryAngus and Robertson
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.

I should probably take a moment to define what the word 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.

In a social experiment with a difference, teenager Maya van Wagenen decides to take the advice from a self-help book for teens to become popular written 60 years ago, apply it to the modern world, and write about her experiences. For the entirety of the eight grade Maya documents her feelings and the reactions of people whilst asking the question – is it possible to go from social outcast and the bottom of the popularity ladder to being the top of the social scale by following advice from a bygone era?

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book nearly as much as I did. Maya writes so honestly about her life, her family and the reactions of people in her small town as she embarks on her crazy adventure. I liked how Maya decided to tackle this project – breaking the popularity guide by former teen model Betty Cornell down into manageable parts – starting with the most achievable and slowly building up to the more challenging sections. She wrestles with girdles, replaces eye make-up with vaseline and puts herself firmly out of her comfort zone on her journey to do whatever Betty says.

The journey is gradual and believable. Maya doesn’t just wake up one day, become 1950’s version of a queen bee. Rather, she painstakingly follows Betty’s advice no matter how humiliating or hard. She’s dignified in her approach to her project no matter what obstacles are in her path.

Maya writes with humour and intelligence well beyond her years. Her story is well-written and relatable for readers of all ages. I loved reading about her journey following Betty’s advice but what sets this book apart is how honest and candid Maya is about her family. Her closeness to her parents and siblings is a beautiful thing. The family photos and anecdotes were just as important to the story as Maya’s journey to popularity.

It is clear to see why Time Magazine named Maya as one of the most influential teens of 2013. Her decision to transform herself into a woman best suited to the 1950’s may seem ridiculous but Maya achieved what she set out to do. She had a goal to do something out of her comfort zone no matter what others thought of her and, with the support of her family, – she managed to see it though to the end. She’s brave and took the risk of following Betty’s advice and changed her outlook on life in the process.

Popular may not be the kind of book I read a lot of but I’m glad I decided to give Maya’s book a go. It’s funny and inspiring, entertaining and intelligent. There are things from Maya’s story I think everyone can learn from and I definitely look forward to seeing what she writes in the future.


  1. This sounds like a really different, interesting book. I’ve seen a lot about it because a) John Green mentioned it in one of his vlogs, and b) it was the freebie book at one of the PTALive events (can’t remember if it was Bristbane or Melbourne). I don’t ordinarily read memoirs, but I’d love to read this one 🙂

  2. I do want to try this one! It’s probably not something I’d gravitate towards because…um, 1950s? No internet so I’m not sure what the attraction is… BUT ANYWAY. It sounds like a really quirky book, and it’s sooo cool that it’s written by a teen.

  3. Woooah she was in Time Magazine?! I don’t know why but this makes me want to read it that much more. I’ve had it sitting on my shelf for awhile now so I think it’s time to pick it up. It absolutely sounds like something that I would love. Thank you for your awesome review!

  4. I’ll be starting a book today and then next up on my tbr is this, which I hope to get through before the week is out- I’m hoping I enjoy it as much as I anticipated I would, and your review promises I will, so I think I’m going to be getting more excited the closer to it I get! Fantastic review!

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