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Local teen's 'Popular' book goes worldwide


May 06, 2014

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    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 to be headed that way.
    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.
    Maya 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,” Maya 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.”
    
What’s the fuss about?
    The neat thing about Maya’s memoir is that 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 prompted a re-release of the original book by Cornell, a teenage model in the 1940s 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,” Maya 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 Monica, 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.
    Another inspiration for her mother’s idea was that Maya 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,’ ” Monica said. “So she always had this gift for words and this love of words and language.”
    The then 13-year-old Maya 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, slept in rag curlers to style her hair and wore skirts, cardigans, pantyhose and pearls for a month.
    
Lipstick and a 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, Maya started a babysitting service. She even 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,” she said.
    The last chapters of Cornell’s book 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 a 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,” Maya 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, Maya flew to Pennsylvania to visit the senior author at her home. Cornell has written the foreword for “Popular,” and Maya in turn has written the foreword for the newest edition of Cornell’s closet classic.
    “Popular” ranked 13th in the Young Adult category on the New York Times Bestseller list based on sales during the week ending April 19 — the book's first week out. Maya's second book, a young adult novel, is slated to be released during the 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.”

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