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Girl with the pearls of wisdom

Date

Telegraph Magazine

Maya Van Wagenen was a geeky 13-year-old, struggling to fit in at her tough state school. Everything changed when she decided to follow the advice set down in a self-help book from the 1950s, writes Heather Hodson.

Maya Van Wagenen has become an international best-selling author following the publication of her book <i>Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek</i>.

Maya Van Wagenen has become an international best-selling author following the publication of her book Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek.

At 13, after several dismal years spent in the ''social outcast'' group (a dismally low position on her school's popularity scale, where sports jocks and rich gang members ranked the highest) Maya Van Wagenen decided to conduct a radical social experiment. For the forthcoming school year she would follow, month by month, the advice prescribed in Betty Cornell's Teenage Popularity Guide, a self-help manual written in 1951 for young women, covering such topics as posture, grooming, the necessity of girdles and the appropriateness of pearls. (''Fads come and go,'' Cornell writes, ''but a simple string of small pearls is still a girl's best friend.'')

Could a self-described ''gawky, slouchy and just a little bit lumpy'' teenager use a 1950s playbook to gain acceptance in her large, rather scary state school in Brownsville, Texas? This was the quest Van Wagenen set herself, each night reporting on her progress in her diary, no matter how painful or humiliating. ''Hopefully, by the end of eighth grade I will know what popularity is,'' she wrote as she embarked on what she called her ''grand project''. ''But not only will I be able to define it, I will have experienced it.''

With the publication of the journal, Van Wagenen has become a literary sensation. 

With the publication of the journal, Van Wagenen has become a literary sensation. Her memoir, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, has sold in large numbers in Britain and America, foreign language rights have been sold in 20 countries, and the book recently reached The New York Times bestseller list for Young Adult literature. Adding to the momentum, DreamWorks has optioned the movie rights. At 15, Van Wagenen is now the youngest non-actor to make a feature deal with a film studio and has been hailed by Time magazine as one of the most influential teenagers in America. It is a dizzying turn of events for a girl who says she thought the best-case scenario was that her journal might, one day, be published as an essay. As her mother, Monica, says with some trepidation, ''Never in a million years would I have dreamt all this. It's such a private thing, a personal journey, a journal, and then all of a sudden it's just …'' She trails off. ''Out there,'' Maya adds, giving me a nervous smile.

Geek no more: Maya Van Wagenen has had the last laugh.

Geek no more: Maya Van Wagenen has had the last laugh.

We are sitting in a restaurant in New York in late April, on the day, Van Wagenen tells me, that Betty Cornell turns 86. Tomorrow she and Cornell are to be guests on The Today Show, and as it turns out both will be promoting books: Cornell's 1951 guide is being reprinted in Britain and America. There is something heart-warming about the teenager reinvigorating the octogenarian's writing career, and the authors, who have written the forewords to each other's book, have become good friends. Cornell's vintage advice has clearly stayed with her friend: Van Wagenen is unfailingly polite and cheerful and looks nothing like the bespectacled, brace-wearing ugly duckling of eighth grade. Wearing pearl earrings and a pearl necklace, her hair neatly brushed back and her pretty face unadorned with make-up save for mascara and lip gloss, her dress encodes old-fashioned preppiness.

In contrast her mother, who is 42 but looks much younger, has a slightly bohemian style.

Van Wagenen had no idea she was going to write her testimonial to teenage status anxiety when she came across Cornell's book at home. It was her father, Michael, a history professor, who discovered it in a thrift store 20 years ago and bought it because, his wife explains: ''He was intrigued from the cultural perspective - it shed a lot of light on popular culture in the 1950s.'' He kept it when he and Monica moved with Maya, then four, to the University of Utah, where he was finishing a PhD, and it went with them to Brownsville the summer before Maya entered sixth grade, when he took up a post at the University of Texas as a professor of history.

Brownsville is a large city on the southernmost tip of the US next door to Mexico, and at her large middle school (for 11 to 14-year-olds) Maya, who had always been a loner, felt out of her depth. She found one friend, Kenzie, ''one of the few people who doesn't make me feel like an outsider'', Van Wagenen writes, and the two became inseparable, volunteering to work in the library during lunchtimes as an escape from the playground.

In the summer before eighth grade Monica found her daughter with her nose continually in Betty Cornell's popularity guide. A documentary filmmaker before she had children, Monica had a light bulb moment when she saw Maya's interest in the guide and suggested the idea for ''the grand project''. For nine months Van Wagenen followed Cornell's advice, devoting each month to different chapters such as Figure Problems and Popular Attitude, telling no one but her family, noting, writing, editing and collating conversations and incidents and emailing the latest instalment to her grandparents at the end of each month.

Her first readers were straight on the telephone if the next episode was late, she tells me. ''They'd say, 'It's the first day of the month, Maya, we checked the email, the next chapter's not there.' I'd go, 'No it's not,' and they'd go, 'You're out of the will','' she says, laughing.

At the end of the school year Van Wagenen sent off the first draft of Popular to her uncle, a television producer, and events moved quickly. Her uncle knew a writer, who passed the proof on to his own literary agent, Daniel Lazar, who signed her last February. Penguin snapped up publishing rights and by October last year she had the film deal. Youth is a powerful promotional tool and Van Wagenen's age and the teenage docudrama aspect of Popular make her an attractive proposition, but as Lazar points out, ''When I first read Maya's voice I was thrilled to see she was truly a writer. This wasn't just a stunt.'' Her voice is assured and funny and the personal journey she tells resonates with readers of all ages. ''It speaks of a universal struggle every kid understands, and every adult can remember, too - and it's a struggle most of us still encounter in daily life,'' Lazar says.

Van Wagenen is an intelligent and at times achingly funny observer. She is too bookish and too unfashionable in her unnamed brands culled from thrift stores and Walmart supermarkets to be accepted by the volleyball girls and football faction. She doesn't deal in or take drugs or show any flesh, so that's a no for rich gang members. She can't even join team Latino because, while she is part Mexican from her mother's side, her skin isn't dark enough. ''In a school district that is 98 per cent Hispanic, I'm told that I don't have enough of the right DNA to be part of team Latino,'' she writes.

What makes Van Wagenen's coming-of-age tale so compelling is that it takes place not in a prestigious private school in the leafy environs of some East Coast town but in a school in ''Borderlandia'', as she describes Brownsville, where students are compelled to carry mesh backpacks to ensure they are not hiding weapons. So close are they to the Mexican border that at one point her school is put on lockdown because of nearby FBI drug operations, while her father can view cartel battles across the border from the window of his office.

It is the juxtaposition of two worlds that are poles apart, the collision of girdles and guns, that gives her memoir its bite and its humour. When she turns up to school wearing a long skirt and nylon stockings (as directed by Cornell's guide) nobody has any idea what to do with her. ''Do you belong to … one of those churches?'' a teacher says, and is greatly relieved when Van Wagenen assures him she does not. She writes, ''Maya's Popularity Tip: Don't question your wardrobe choices based on someone else's religious intolerance.'' It is charmingly done.

Did she ever think the project she set herself was just too weird to continue with? ''There were definitely days when I thought, 'This is crazy,' she says. ''For the most part writing about it was the fun part, it was my way to make sense of it.'' The most trying time came in the final chapters of her diary, written in April and May of eighth grade, when she forced herself to make connections with those far outside and above her own social group.

Cornell advises, ''If you want to be a human being, and a popular human being, then you have to stop being an oyster and come out of your shell … Start small and work up.'' She put the theory to the test in the school cafeteria, ''the most heart-wrenching place on campus'', where the Darwinian social hierarchy is demonstrated by the table at which you sit.

To the horror of Kenzie and her social outcast friends, first she joined the Spanish club. Next it was the choir geeks, where she got on so well with one member they swapped email addresses, followed by the seriously terrifying all-guy table of band geeks and rich gang members, and finally the tables in pole position, volleyball girls and football faction. It was here that she had her biggest success when a popular jock, with sincerity, asked her out on a date, sparking a panic attack.

Along the way Van Wagenen makes friends with not only members of popular cliques but also with miscellaneous social outcasts, and takes to heart Cornell's most valuable advice of all: ''In order to be a success in the world, you have to be pretty as well as look pretty. How do you get to be pretty? By having a pleasant personality. You must be affable, considerate, generous, open hearted and polite.'' With this in mind, Van Wagenen subverts the rules of the school prom and asks anybody who doesn't have a date to go with her - a ballsy move that would have been entirely impossible for the introverted author of the year before. As a group of jocks respond when she asks them to define popularity, ''You shouldn't worry about it, Maya. You're super popular. Everybody knows who you are.''

Popular touches on a gamut of issues ranging from class and race and self-identity to teenage crushes, skin problems, and what you do when you find a brick of marijuana washed up on your local beach. Van Wagenen says she didn't set out to cover so many universal issues, rather that it happened that way. ''I think the reason that the book touches on so many subjects is almost accidental. I didn't necessarily go out with the intention to write about race or the border with Mexico. It was just so much a part of my life.''

Does she think there are any similarities between teenagers now and those of 60 years ago? ''The similarity between now and then is really the experience [of teenhood] and the feeling that you don't belong, of feeling isolated, and that same desire to fit in.''

Since writing Popular Van Wagenen and her family have moved to Statesboro in Georgia, where her father has a new position at a university. All of them have found they miss Brownsville, particularly the food but also, in a strange way, the sense of violence bubbling under the surface of daily life. ''You become a kind of adrenalin junkie in Brownsville. We'll read the news in Brownsville and go, 'Oh my gosh, oh my gosh','' Monica says.

''We'd read, 'Disembodied heads found posted on the top of the freeway in Mexico','' Maya adds, laughing. ''Here we're next to Hopulikit, pronounced ''hope you like it'', which is an actual place. When we were living in Brownsville my parents always told me, remember this place, you can put it in a book somewhere.''

Now in ninth grade, she is writing a novel to fulfil her two-book deal with her publisher, a project that is placing a lot of demands on her. ''People have asked me why I'm not home schooled, especially on days when I'm trying to write and I've got homework, too. Like, even on this trip I'm missing school, and it's really frustrating because I've got all these deadlines. But I'm a writer, this is my world. If I want to write for young adults I need to go to a normal high school.'' For the same reason she will be going to college, despite her new-found writing career. ''College is a rite of passage,'' her mother says. ''Leaving home and testing your limits and figuring out who you are - so it's great writing fodder.''

Ironically, in some ways this year is as challenging as the one in eighth grade, given her academic and writing demands and all the excitement caused by Popular. ''It's a little scary to share something so personal with the world, but it is incredibly rewarding to hear from readers who say that the story touched them or inspired them to spread kindness.''

As I get ready to leave I compliment her on the pearls around her neck. ''Pearls are my signature,'' she says. She wears them like body armour, or a badge of courage. ''Whenever I follow any of the physical advice in Betty's book, like the pearls or the red lipstick, it's about going back to that mentality of 'Here I am, I am the character of this story, and I will act accordingly'. I will be the person that I found at the end of eighth grade,'' she says. ''Whenever I'm really scared or nervous I think: I've done this before, here are the pearls to prove it.''

Telegraph Magazine

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