On Wednesday night, I was lucky enough to go to the launch for the book that’s causing a storm both in the US and here in England. Written by 15-year-old Maya Van Wagenen, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek is an eighth-grader’s memoir about her extraordinary journey from social outcast to daring 1950’s lookalike in pearls- something that was simply not done in her small middle school on the Mexican border.
The story is basically about her discovery of a book written by Betty Cornell in the 50’s all about teenage popularity. Maya decided it would be interesting to follow the advice given in the book to the letter as a sort of social experiment, and see if it could translate into the modern day- as, in her own words, she had “nothing to lose”. From girdles to gloves and hats, the next year of her life was an interesting one to say the least, from materialistic things, to mannerisms and confidence tests.
The book launch was held on the tenth floor of the Penguin offices on the strand, with a breath-taking view over London, especially late at night. The reason I was lucky enough to go was because my parents run a vintage clothing and homewares business and were invited to come along with some of their stock, so I joined them to help out. After getting dolled up by the 50’s hair and makeup pop-up salon that came along, we spent the evening chatting to various bloggers and people from Penguin, before going to hear Maya herself speak.
The evening was hosted by the editor of Glamour magazine, Jo Elvin, who interviewed Maya and then opened it up to us to ask questions. I can honestly say I was blown away by how eloquent and insightful she was for a girl of fifteen, there were definitely strong feelings of inadequacy within me when hearing her speak! She talked about the project, which she described as her hunt for the true meaning of popularity. When asked if she had managed to find the answer, she smiled and said simply that there was no true definition. She knew only what it wasn’t; it wasn’t the clothes you wore or the way you walked, or having everyone know your name. It’s about realising that there is no difference between those at the top and the bottom; they both have the same worries, the same fears, and the same hopes. It’s about being able to put that to one side, put yourself out there and treat people as your equal, and they will reciprocate.
Maya is by no means your average high school ‘popular’ girl, but she’s happy. Whilst the book puts across this message skilfully, and if definitely a must-read- especially for pre-teens- it’s not until you meet her in person that you realise what an inspirational person she is and how much we could truly learn from her. At fifteen, with a movie already in the works and a best-selling book, I feel this is nowhere near the last we are going to see of Maya Van Wagenen.