Maya was just an eighth grader when she began this project after finding a vintage copy of Betty Cornell’s Teen-age Popularity Guide, published in 1951. Maya is decidedly not popular, as she indicates in her introduction that explains her school’s unwritten popularity scale, with Volleyball Girls at 10 and Substitute Teachers at –3. She groups herself into the Social Outcasts group (at –1). Her mother suggests she follow the guide’s advice for one year and write about what happens, knowing how much Maya loves to write. At first, Maya is skeptical, but a paragraph in Betty Cornell’s book about how everyone wants to be liked and be included convinces her to give it a try.
Maya works on one chapter each month. Some are focused on outward appearance, like Hair and Make-up, while others focus more inwardly on topics like Personality and Shyness. Although some of the advice is decidedly 1950’s, like “always wear a girdle,” other chapters feature advice that is still surprisingly relevant to today’s teens, like not overdoing make-up and being friendly to people. Maya tackles all of it, one month at a time, with considerable enthusiasm. She attracts some attention when she starts changing her hairstyle daily or wearing skirts and pearls to school…but even more when she tries to break out of her own group of social outcasts and interact with kids at all levels of the popularity scale.
Maya writes with surprising maturity and poise. The entire memoir is engaging, interesting, and lots of fun, and Maya has a wonderful sense of self-deprecating humor that pulls the reader in. In some of the earlier chapters, I wanted to reach through the book and tell the poor self-conscious girl not to worry so much about popularity, that having one best friend (as she does) is often enough and that once you get to college and out into the real world, it is not only OK but actually desirable to be smart. It turns out that Maya learns some of those lessons on her own, and by the end, she comes to realize just what I wanted to tell her – that popularity hinges more on kindness and respect than anything else.
In fact, Maya learns a lot from her experience, and she does transform herself during the year-long experiment, not just physically but also emotionally. She gains a lot of maturity and learns that she’s not the only one who feels self-conscious and excluded in school, and she makes a lot of new friends. All in all, Popular is a charming, intelligent, and entertaining book about an ordinary yet remarkable young woman, and it should inspire many other young teens like her.