Wow, I just zoomed right through this. For a fifteen year old, Maya Van Wagenen has a very compelling voice. Frankly, this would be good even if it was written by someone older. But I can’t get over how brave this kid was to do all of this. I never could have done it when I was her age — at the peak of my miserable weirdo awkwardness. And she writes with humor and compassion that a lot of assholes older than her could do to learn something from. She’s going places.
Maya Van Wagenen’s father found an old 1950s etiquette and popularity guide written by a former 1950s model in a thrift store and gave it to her as a gag gift. Maya, very aware of and unhappy with her low social standing (“pretty much the lowest level of people at school who aren’t paid to be here”), decided to do a social experiment: for one year, she would follow the tips in Betty Cornell’s book and document the results.
Most of the tips are outdated and cause Maya more stress than they do help in providing her with tips for navigating the modern adolescent world (dressing in pearls and skirts and gloves like someone’s grandmother is not the way to get other eighth graders to think you’re ‘cool’). It’s not even that the book has anything particularly original or worthwhile to say, more that it forced Maya to step outside of her comfort zone and do things she normally would have been afraid to. It also gave her a new perspective on the other kids in her school that completely – and no exaggeration here — changed her life.
As mentioned above, the real selling point of this book is Maya’s voice. She is funny and insightful and smart. She writes with a confidence that I would have killed for at her age, while at the same time allowing us to see her as a vulnerable human being at some pretty low points. The actions that she took to change her life and the conclusions she draws from her experience are ones that, frankly, astound me. This book should be required reading for middle schoolers. If I would have read it when I was thirteen and taken its message to heart, I think I my adolescence would have been very, very different.
I’m trying to be as vague as possible here while still giving you a taste of what to expect, but it’s really difficult. Just check the book out. I was able to get my library to order a copy. I read it in a couple of hours straight through. Maya tells us almost from the beginning that she wants to be an author someday, which is a goal she has obviously already succeeded in. However, if this is the kind of thing she can accomplish by the age of fifteen, I really look forward to seeing what else she has in store for the reading public as she grows older.
Plus, there’s going to be a movie! (Of course there’s going to be a movie. I hope they do it justice.)