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Local teen’s ‘Popular’ book goes worldwide

Local teen’s ‘Popular’ book goes worldwide

Local teen’s ‘Popular’ book goes worldwide

Maya Van Wagenen, 15, author of "Popu...


If Statesboro can have something like a literary Hannah Montana, its own iCarly of young adult literature, Maya Van Wagenen, 15, author of “Popular: Vintage Wisdom for the Modern Geek” appears headed for that level of teen celebrity.

But it’s hardly a case of secret stardom. The Statesboro High School sophomore appeared on  NBC’s Today Show for the book’s April 15 launch, and news of her recent and rapid literary success has been carried by Cosmopolitan, USA Today, and People magazine, among others. Her movie deal isn’t just talked about; it’s real, and with Dreamworks at that. Check the New York Times Bestseller List to see if the book breaks into it next week.

This never was some regional or web-published curiosity you might read about only in your local newspaper. Van Wagenen signed last summer with Penguin Dutton for publication in the United States and Canada, with Penguin UK carrying it to the rest of the English-speaking world. Rights are in hand for translations into many other languages.

“Penguin offered me a two-book deal, so they bought ‘Popular’ and then whatever my next book is,” Van Wagenen said. “I recently got a deadline for draft one of book two and that’s been really exciting because I get to work on that a little bit more now that ‘Popular’ is finished and out. … I’m excited.”

The local girl whose name pops up more than 100,000 times when Googled has signed copies of “Popular” at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and a Texas Library Association event, but her first bookstore signing will be at her hometown Books-A-Million Saturday at
2 p.m.



What’s the fuss about?


The neat thing about Van Wagenen’s memoir is, she lived it by following recommendations in “Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide,” first published in 1951. The publication of “Popular: Vintage Wisdom for the Modern Geek” has also prompted a re-release of the original book by Cornell, now well into her 80s.

Maya’s father, Dr. Michael Van Wagenen, now a Georgia Southern University assistant professor and coordinator of GSU’s new graduate program in public history, had bought a copy of Cornell’s book at a thrift store years ago.

“He’s a historian, so he thought it was a unique piece of vintage pop culture, and he always was amazed at how interesting it was and what a clear picture it painted of popularity in the 1950s and what high school was like,” Van Wagenen said.

The family was living in Brownsville, Texas, when the book turned up during a closet cleanup and gave her mother, Monica Van Wagenen, an idea for a writing project and social experiment for her daughter. Maya was then in middle school, approaching eighth grade, when her mother suggested that she follow the advice in Cornell’s book through the school year and keep a diary about her experiences.

“She really struggled socially, and I thought, oh gosh, wouldn’t this be something that she could focus on,” said Mrs. Van Wagenen, a sometime anthropology and English instructor. “Sixth and seventh grade had been really, really difficult for her.”

This seems hard to believe now as the cute, fashionably dressed 15-year-old talks confidently about her writing life and admits she’s a straight-A student. But take a mother’s word for it. She is also our tipster to watch the Times’ bestseller list.

Another inspiration for her mother’s idea was that Van Wagenen had been playing with language since she could speak.

“Even since before she could write she would say things that were incredibly insightful and I would write them down on scraps of paper with the date and say, ‘Oh my gosh, look what’s she’s saying,’” Mrs. Van Wagenen said. “So she always had this gift for words and this love of words and language.”

She had written poetry from age 4 and won a statewide short story contest in Texas in seventh grade.

The then 13-year-old Van Wagenen took her mother’s idea and ran with it, living out Cornell’s 1951 popularity advice, six decades out of sync. She sported red lipstick for a month. She slept in rag curlers to style her hair. She wore skirts, cardigans, pantyhose and pearls.



Lipstick and girdle

Working through topics in Cornell’s book month by month, she also dealt with “figure problems,” and what to wear where. When the chapter “On the Job” recommended babysitting, Van Wagenen started a babysitting service.

She even — this too almost defies belief — wore a girdle for a month.

“I think for the most part everything served its purpose in pushing me a little further out of my shell,” Van Wagenen said.

But the girdle was one experiment she’s not eager to live over.

The last chapters of Cornell’s book she lived through offered timeless advice, she said. These focused on adopting a “popular” attitude and reaching out to others. Every day she challenged herself to sit at different lunch table in the school cafeteria.

“That definitely got me noticed, and it was also a big confidence builder to see that I could make friends with people who I’d never met before and I could hold my head high even when I was doing things that were very difficult,” Van Wagenen said.

She kept the purpose of her behavioral experiments secret from everyone except her family while writing the book.

After her father used public records to help her find Cornell, Van Wagenen flew to Pennsylvania to visit the senior author at her home. Permissions were worked out, and Cornell wrote the foreword to Van Wagenen’s book, while she in turn wrote a foreword to the new edition of Cornell’s closet classic.

Between writing her book and seeing it published, Van Wagenen moved from Texas to Statesboro with her parents, her brother Brodie, 12, and her sister Natalia, 8.

Van Wagenen hopes to remain at Statesboro High until graduation. Her second book, a young adult novel, is slated to be out fall of her senior year. Despite all this, she remains, typically for a 15-year-old, undecided about her further education and career.

“Whatever I do, I always want to be a writer,” she said. “I’m not quite sure what else I want to do, it will be interesting to see what I figure out.”



Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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