Girl power

A social experiment is perhaps the last thing you would expect an awkward American teen to launch. So when Maya Van Wagenen, now 15, takes up the daunting project to question the popularity table at her school in Brownsville, Texas (why the “Volleyball Girls" are more popular than the “Library Nerds"), and talk about it in a tell-all diary in Popular: A Memoir, the result is at once surprising and exciting.

It all begins when Van Wagenen’s academic father finds a book, Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide, he had bought from a thrift store years ago and gives it to Maya. A successor to the 19th century ladies’ book of etiquette, Betty Cornell’s guide offers advice on everything from tackling teenage skin problems to how to be a gracious hostess. The action begins in right earnest when Van Wagenen decides to follow Betty Cornell’s tips to a T.

Van Wagenen is meticulous in planning the experiment. Lists and notes pithily report how things pan out on a day-to-day basis. Her sentences are short and crisp. But it is her use of bullet points, those boring dots we see so often in corporate presentations, that charms the most. An observation about her neighbourhood goes thus:

“—We can see smoke from Matamoros, Mexico, as it burns in the drug war.

—I’m pretty sure our neighbor buried a body in his front yard. He’s always watering the same patch of green lawn.

—My little brother has a groupie next door. She follows him from the bus and stands outside our house, even when no one’s home. The kid’s only five years old.

—I suspect there’s a drug dealer also; there are way too many expensive cars and late-night visitors. For my own safety I dare not say who or where…"

There are many ups and downs in the novel. Even as Van Wagenen has some success pulling in her panza (paunch) and making money babysitting, her attempt to organize a party for her schoolmates falls flat. Along this roller-coaster ride she rolls in observations about Texas, where she lives, its proximity to Mexico, descriptions of the local flea markets where you can buy raspa snow cones, gang wars and drug trafficking.

While readers are likely to cheer in her victories and feel sorry for her when her hopes are dashed, the book seems too good to be true in bits. The movie finish, with everyone having a good time at the prom, seems forced.

That Van Wagenen sticks to her guns despite some disappointments, even when the project makes outrageous demands on her to dress or act in ways that were popular in the 1950s, is also remarkable. Whether you think her gutsy or plain precocious, you have to give her points for gumption.

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