published Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Teen finds meaning in 1950s popularity guide

  • photo
    This book cover image released by Dutton shows the 1950s book "Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide." Maya Van Wagenen, a 15-year-old author, decided to follow the book's advice and kept a diary.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Respecting or learning from one’s elders isn’t exactly a top priority for most teens. They’re too busy texting or mastering the latest social media platform to relate to the idea that their grandparents ever battled teenage issues like acne or fitting in.

For Maya Van Wagenen, though, digging up a previous generation’s teen scene actually helped her. She survived the middle-school blues thanks to “Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide,” originally published in 1951. Her experiences following the guide led Van Wagenen to write her own book, “Popular,” which has now been optioned for a movie.

Van Wagenen, 15, says her father found Cornell’s book in a thrift shop, way before she was born. He held onto it for years because he was amused by its outdated gems like “Beautiful hair is about the most important thing a girl has.”

The guide surfaced during a clean-up effort and her parents challenged their eighth-grade daughter to an idea: Follow the book’s advice in secret and write about what happens.

Van Wagenen says considered herself to be “one step above substitute teachers” on her school’s popularity scale and worried the project would make things worse.

“It didn’t seem like a good idea at all,” she recalls. “I was terrified because, flipping through the pages, you read about all teens must wear a girdle and wear pearls to school and wear pantyhose and red lipstick and stuff that I definitely wasn’t comfortable doing.”

Although she was used to being invisible, as she read the book she had an epiphany.

“I realized I did want friends and I did want to be liked and I did want to be accepted and, while I didn’t have a clear cut definition of popularity, I knew that it wasn’t what I was. More than anything, I didn’t have anything to lose, so I said, ‘You know what? I’ll try it for a month.’”

She began to make changes, wore pearls, dressed up and even tried a girdle.

Little things suggested by Cornell began to make sense. Before the “Popularity Guide,” Van Wagenen says she’d spend five minutes on her hair. Following the book, she began to put time into her appearance, and a classmate commented that she’d “finally dropped the stupid ponytail.”

Some reaction to her new habits was hurtful, but documenting it seemed to help.

“There were times people would say mean things and it would make me feel really bad,” confesses Van Wagenen, who was a 13-year-old eighth-grader in Brownsville, Texas, at the time. But writing about them turned them into “hilarious stories” where she was “able to laugh at these things that were genuinely hurtful at first.”

“These bullies became characters, and I became a character as well and that was really empowering,” Van Wagenen says, adding: “I would say, ‘Well, what would I want my character to be doing right now?’”

Besides changing her appearance, Cornell’s guide also encouraged Van Wagenen to reach out to others and be more outgoing. As she made connections, kids began to gravitate to her. Soon she realized, “Everyone around you is like you, and they’re looking for friendship, and so it’s good to step up and to be that person, that kind person.”

As Van Wagenen’s experiment was working, her father went to work to track down Betty Cornell, now 79 and living in Audubon, Pa. The two met, and Van Wagenen discovered that Cornell still follows the principles of the book herself.

“It was wonderful to share that connection. She said it was great to have her work validated,” Van Wagenen says.

Van Wagenen’s experiment has just been published in a memoir called “Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek” (Dutton Juvenile), geared to seventh-graders and up. “Betty Cornell’s Teenage Popularity Guide” has been re-issued as a companion book, and Cornell also wrote the forward to “Popular.”

Hollywood also likes Van Wagenen’s story: She’s optioned the movie rights to DreamWorks.

Van Wagenen, now in 10th grade and living with her family in Statesboro, Ga., speaks with a confidence and wisdom that seems beyond her years. She still breaks out the pearls on special occasions because they’re “empowering,” but there’s one thing she’s not keeping: the girdle.

“I definitely left the girdle in the drawer,” she says.

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