Thursday, January 25, 2018

Popular: A Memoir

When Library Amy mentioned Popular, by Maya Van Wagenen, and told me that the YA book club had read it, I thought it sounded super interesting. A teenage girl finds an advice book from the '50s on how to be popular and decides to try to improve her middle school experience. Amy strongly suggested I read it, but with an expression that said it wasn't perfect.

I've taken a peek at old books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, and some of those old social guides that Dear Abby used to put out, and they can have decent ideas embedded in some very dated explanations. Make eye contact, ask people about themselves, laugh at least as often as you talk.

Maya starts out talking about her bottom-of-the-ladder, mostly-ignored, sometimes-bothered middle school existence, and it seems like one of those things where basic advice might, surprisingly, make a big difference. She decides to take on one chapter from this advice book each month for the school year, building on her experience as she goes.

So maybe you can imagine my discomfort when we get to the table of contents of Betty Cornell's Teenage Popularity Guide and find that every single topic is about getting pretty. We've got diet and figure, posture, skin and makeup, hair, and clothes.  Start off with the notion that these are the ingredients to popularity--not one of which involves what you think, say, or do in your interactions with literally anyone.

When you take these as starting points, the anachronistic nature of the text gets awkward really fast. On weight loss: "As for taunts from your friends--and they will taunt you--keep your chin up and your weight down." On hair: "When it comes to shampooing your hair, plan to save at least one night a week for the job."  On clothes: "For Heaven's sake, have a little pity on others and a lot of pride in yourself; put on a skirt when you're shopping."

The author picks some of these particularly rough quotes to include, so it's pretty clear that she gets what's wrong with this. But she doesn't comment on them, and she continues to follow the instructions. Dressing like a proper 1950s girl (in pearls!) is not what I was expecting her to learn from this.

Having said all that--this book is super enjoyable.  It's basically this girl's diary while she does this project for a year, and Maya is a really good writer. The fun part here is watching her step out of her comfort zone, and spending time with her family and in her community.  Her younger sister is autistic; her father is a college professor; they live in a small Texas town on the border of Mexico where there's a lot of drug-related violence and a great deal of poverty.  The family isn't very well-off, but they get along and seem incredibly sweet.  And if I wanted to smack her father when he teases her ab out a boy she likes--well, that's what it's like to be a teenager with a dad, right?

I'm only halfway through the book, so how I end up feeling will depend a lot on the conclusions Maya draws from these results, and especially on whether or not she calls out some of the really shallow advice the book has.  But whether she comes through for me or not, it will have been worth the read.

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