Betty Cornell's Teenage Popularity Guide

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The highly anticipated Popular: Vintage Wisdom For A Modern Geek and it’s friend Teenage Popularity Guide* hit the shelves in April.  I first heard about these books from an article in Publishers Weekly whose headline read:  Teenage Memoir Gives New Life to Its 1950s Inspiration 

It was an article about how 15 year-old Maya Van Wagenen did the following:
  1. employed 1950s fashion, grooming, and etiquette techniques…
  2. for the duration of her 8th grade year...
  3. while writing it all down in her diary... 
  4. which led to a book deal...
  5. that also resulted in its film rights being sold to a little moviemaking company by the name of “DreamWorks”.

I love the way Maya plugs some of the tips from Betty’s vintage guide into Popular (they’re in a ladylike light-blue italic font).  You’ll also find some well-placed text boxes labeled ‘Maya’s Popularity Tips’.  Here’s one example from the Clothes & What To Wear chapter: 

       Don’t question your wardrobe choices based on someone else’s religious intolerance.**

To which I would venture to add:

       … but do question your wardrobe choices if they do not look good on you and aren’t required by your religion’s dogma. 

My favorite chapter is the one where Maya puts into practice Betty’s teachings on cultivating a friendly personality/combatting shyness.  This is the part where Maya tries to reap what she’s been sowing throughout 8th grade (ie. acquire more friends).  And where is the best, most logical place to make new friends in middle school?  It’s that one place where every group on the popularity scale is represented: the cafeteria.

Maya begins with the lunch tables of the groups where she has an acquaintance or two – the other Social Outcast table, the Choir Geek table.  As the month rolls on, Maya sits down – uninvited and often unwelcome – to eat her lunch with every group.  She’s nervous, of course; we’re nervous for her.  It’s a ballsy task.

I expected Popular to be a sort of passionate monologue, but it ended up being a dialogue between Maya and Betty, between Maya and herself, and, finally, between Maya and her fellow middle schoolers.  It’s a book about not hiding anymore, or, as Betty says, how “to have yourself well in hand”.  I can’t wait to see the movie!

Maya was kind enough to answer, over email, my questions about some of her social experiment’s logistical details, the new book she’s working on, and her social life:

Paige: So Maya, tell me about how you came across the Teenage Popularity Guide?  Was it originally your mother's, or perhaps your grandmother's?  Was it hanging out on your mom's bookshelf?  In a box in the attic?

Maya Van Wagenen: My dad, a historian, bought Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide at a thrift store years before I was born. He thought it did a good job of representing the ideals of vintage pop culture in an amusing way. Fortunately, my dad never got rid of the book, although he contemplated it many times through the years. The summer before I went into eighth grade, my parents found the book while cleaning out the office. They gave it to me to look at, and when I started reading some of the advice out to my mother she came up with the idea to follow those suggestions during the upcoming school year and write about what happened.

What did Teenage Popularity Guide smell like?  Was it marked up with highlights and/or notes in the margins?

The book itself is faded and torn. It smells like an antique shop or like folded lace handkerchiefs left in a grandmother’s cupboard. When I got the book, the only marking was an inscription written in spiraling cursive in the front cover from the year 1953, which shows it was a gift from “Mama and Daddy” to their daughter.  Since then I have marked up the book with frantic notes in pencil, underlined passages, and added doodles and sticky notes to the faded pages. There is also a signature from the author herself that I got when I met her last April.

When you finally met Betty Cornell, were you nervous?  The two of you obviously had a lot to talk about; did you bond instantly or is your relationship more reserved and professional?  What’s she like?  Did you find yourself wanting to kiss, hug, or otherwise embrace her?  

I was nervous to meet the person who, through her book, had become a close friend and teacher. Betty was a very real part of my day-to-day life, and having an actual conversation with her was both exciting and terrifying. I realized, though, that there was little to be worried about. Betty Cornell had lived the advice she wrote in her book, and because of that she was exactly as I’d imagined her to be: friendly and inclusive. We hit it off and keep in touch.  

Where are you on your second book?  How's that going?

My second book is a novel with a different tone than that of Popular, but hopefully a similar message of kindness and acceptance. I have loved the experiences I’ve had because of this first publication, but it’s been incredibly time consuming. Even though it will be sad to start a new chapter of my career, I can’t wait to put my full attention to this next work.

And, finally, has your social life changed?  If you didn't become more popular as a result of spending your 8th grade year employing Betty's advice, are you more popular now as a result of your recent success and media attention?

While I can’t directly tell you the full outcome of the experiment, (you’ve got to read about that for yourself :) ), it was an incredible and life changing experience. But, I can say that the news about the publication of the book has had a considerable effect on my life in high school. While this is a different kind of popularity than I sought out for at the beginning of eighth grade, it is very interesting none the less. I’ve met a great deal of people because of it, and thanks to that I am continuing to learn about popularity even now. 

* Here’s TPG’s superlong 1950s subtitle:
‘Here you are – everything I learned as a teen-age model about good looks, grooming and personality… all my secrets of poise and glamour in one big book…to help YOU become the most popular girl in your set!’

** A teacher – who had been eyeing Maya’s long skirt and pilgrim-esque shoes – has just asked Maya if her outfit was a byproduct of her religious affiliation (“one of those churches”).

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