It’s strange how popularity has a hold on many of us, even removed from the Regina Georges and Plastics of high school past. I’m a 27-year-old librarian and every time one of my teens tells me I’m cool (which inexplicably happens on an almost daily basis) I feel a strange sense of validation. A “take a look at me now” Phil Collins/Mariah Carey moment if you will. And it always goes back to the feelings popularity evoked back in school.
Teen magazines and self-help books constantly urge those desperately seeking acceptance and popularity to just be themselves…but maybe with some makeup and a little weight loss. The modern releases are thankfully a little lighter on the “pretend to be interested in his interests” dish, but looks and presentation are, and always have been, a key issue. In 1951, Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide was no different.
Years after its publication, a young man jokingly picked up this guide to teen esteem in a thrift store. Much later down the road, his wife discovered it packed away in his office. She presented it to their not-so-popular daughter as an opportunity to perform a social experiment: for one school year, follow advice from the ’50s and see what happens.
And so, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek was born. Maya Van Wagenen, a plucky girl about to enter 8th grade, embarked on a journey to add at least one more friend to her current roster of one. She focused on one or two Betty chapters per month, and recorded classmate reactions and her emotions in a journal. Throughout the year, Betty’s Guide took Maya waaaay out of her comfort zone. How, you ask? For starters, applying Vaseline on the eyes as makeup (WHAT), wearing floor length skirts and pearl necklaces for days, and suffering the atrocity of GIRDLES. Through it all, Maya documents her triumphs and defeats with humor and heart.
Going into this memoir, I’ll admit I was nervous that this funny, smart girl (who really reminds me of a Tina Fey who’s not quite Tina Fey yet, if that makes sense) would lose herself to a limited world of beauty regimens. But Maya’s intelligence and beautiful sarcasm really shines through her constant struggle with lipstick and the aforementioned girdle. The demure sentiment of the ’50s is absolutely present in Betty’s Guide, but Maya expertly picks her way through the fluff and pulls out what matters most: poise, confidence, the strength to stick to your values, and friendship.
What struck me most while reading this memoir was the contrast between the ’50s popularity advice and the modern social issues that Maya and her fellow classmates face. Living close to the border, she provides accounts of drug trafficking, gangs, shootings, and more. The contrast really pushes Maya to redefine what she believes popularity to mean in the long run.
For a 15-year-old writer, the book is fairly well written. Maya can certainly be a little saccharine, especially when describing her interactions with her unrequited crush, but overall it is very easy and fun to breeze through her social commentary.
If you want a mostly lighthearted, humorous teen memoir and/or you want to feel a humongous sense of relief that the next generation is not full of reality star wannabes, I definitely recommend ducking into the YA section of a bookstore or library for Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek! This YA memoir is making a lot of waves—like all popular YA works, it will be on the big screen in the future.
Nicole Perrault is a teen librarian (a librarian for teens and not, as many patrons believe, a teenaged librarian) in the Boston area. She loves YA lit because even the most grotesque, apocalyptic novels end on hopeful notes. You can follow her library adventures on Instagram at @medfordteens.by