(D) Ages 10-12, (E) Ages 12-15, Book Reviews, Nonfiction, Teen/Adult
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Popular by Maya Van Wagenen

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen. Dutton, 2014. 259 pages.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 11-12popular
Maturity Level: 5 (ages 12-14)

When Maya’s dad, a college professor, found a quaint title from 1951 in his book stash and handed it to her, she never expected it would change her life. Betty Compton’s Teen Age Popularity Guide was loaded with advice about when to wear pearls and hats and how one should never leave the house without one’s girdle on–and seemed as far from a contemporary eighth-grader’s experience in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, as a gun battle (not infrequent) from a tea party. Or a school lockdown (also not infrequent) from a ladies’ luncheon. Maya’s mother suggested she try the advice—all of it—for one year and record her experience. After some initial resistance (What?? No way!), Maya decided to give it a go.

Hilarity ensues. Well, not exactly. There are plenty of chuckles in antique advice about lipstick and suitable conversation, plus comic relief from best friend Kenzie, who is frank and mildly profane. Also some banter about boobs and tampons and what a girdle does to one’s derriere. But Maya’s surroundings, with drug-cartel battles going on in her backyard, are not conducive to Leave-It-to-Beaver land, and real tragedy isn’t far away—that year, her favorite teacher Mr. Lawrence succumbed to Stage 4 cancer. The birthday of little sister Ariana, who died at three months, still haunts Maya, and her other little sister Natasha is severely autistic and seldom smiles for pictures. But Maya loves her family, and they love her, and by carefully following Betty Compton’s advice she gains the confidence to reach out to classmates both cool and weird. That’s what this book is about: learning to live in, rather than be fearful of, the world around you. Real popularity is kindness and acceptance. It’s about who you are and how you treat others. Maya doesn’t use all the resources available to her; though the family attends church, she never mentions God as particularly relevant, and her trust in essential human decency may someday be disappointed. But she learns some practical virtues that should stand her in good stead through the rest of high school and college, and might even contribute to more books.

UPDATE: Popular won the American Library Associations YALSA Award for excellence in nonfiction for Young Adults.

Cautions: Language (mild profanity)

Overall Value: 3.75 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.75
  • Artistic value: 4

Categories: Autobiography/Memoir, Young Adult, Nonfiction, Life Issues, Character Values, Award Winners

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