by Lindsay Deutsch)
Maya Van Wagenen is not your average teen. At 15, she's poised, contemplative and bookish. She wears signature pearls and lists Charles Dickens as her significant other on Facebook. Her posture is impeccable.
She loves Ray Bradbury, Louisa May Alcott and Barbara Kingsolver. Now Van Wagenen has joined their literary ranks with the publication of her memoir, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for the Modern Nerd (Dutton), the first of a two-book deal. (Next up: A novel. Subject: Top secret.)
She made headlines months before Popular's publication when film rights were snapped up by Dreamworks, making her the youngest non-actor to make a feature deal with the studio.
MORE: Betty Cornell's 1950s popularity guide gets a reboot
Visiting bookstores in Soho while on a New York publicity blitz that starts with the Today show, attired in a smart pink blazer and quirky Dr. Who socks, she'd rather talk about novels than who might play her in the movie. If she doesn't seem overly impressed, that's just Maya.
Popular taps into a feeling shared by Bradbury and Bieber enthusiasts alike — the need to fit in during middle school, which Maya calls "the bottom of the bottom." Her book draws on a journal she kept when she was 13 during eighth grade in the border town of Brownsville, Texas.
"Most of my sixth and seventh grade was just keeping my head down. I didn't want to bring attention to myself because I had always been bullied," says Van Wagenen, who is completing 10th grade in Statesboro, Ga., where her family now lives. She had one close friend in Texas, and struggled to fit in with her predominantly Spanish-speaking peers.
Then, a book from the 1950s changed her life.
The summer before eighth grade, Maya's parents gave her a 1953 self-help guide called Betty Cornell's Teen-Age Popularity Guide, which her dad had scooped up at a vintage shop. Her mom challenged her to follow the book, which offered retro tips for young women on appearance and personality, from standing up straight, to wearing a girdle, pearls and long skirts, to being kind, outgoing and inclusive.
She would follow the guide chapter by chapter, from "Good Grooming" to "Modeling Tricks" to "Be a Hostess," not tell anyone what she was doing, and write it all down.
What ensued over the school year was Maya's transformation from shy, quiet girl to the person everyone was talking about. Popular unfolds in a string of big-screen-ready awkward moments, from a school picture day flub to a dateless school dance.
"The project transformed Maya's year. She saw herself as a character in her story, as the protagonist. And what do you do with a protagonist? You put them in difficult situations," says Maya's mother, Monica, 41.
But Popular is not a Mean Girls reboot.
"The stories about the transformation of nice quiet girl to a mean popular girl — that was never what I wanted. I didn't want to lose who I was," Maya says. Instead, she changed the definition of popular, "to be about including everyone and being a good friend. It's not this exclusive thing."
It's a philosophy that resonated with the New York publishing world.
"When Maya's agent called me and pitched the book, I thought, 'This is either brilliant, or it's a hot mess,' " says Julie Strauss-Gabel, vice president and publisher of Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin. She read the book in a night and signed Maya within the week.
"Maya is the kid we make books for. She's a fan of literature. I don't stunt publish and this is not a stunt," Strauss-Gabel says.
Two years after her experiment and living in a different part of the country with a new group of friends, Maya has found her place. She's excited to head home, where her friends, she says, "refreshingly" do not care about her book.
To them, she's just Maya, the popular one in pearls.
*Blogger's note: I know I wrote about this before but from another page. If you get a chance, listen to the audio and watch the video about the book (not a trailer) click here.