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Maya Van Wagenen

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About the Author

Maya Van Wagenen is sixteen years old. When she was eleven, her family moved to Brownsville, Texas, the setting of Popular? When not hunched over a desktop writing, Maya enjoys reading, British television, and chocolate. She now lives with her parents and two siblings in rural Georgia. She is a junior in high school but still shares a room with her sixth grade brother. Remarkably, they have not yet killed each other.

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Author Q&A

Editor’s Note: Maya Van Wagenen is the author of the bestselling memoir, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek. She is fifteen years old and has never been popular. Before starting eighth grade, she decides to begin a social experiment: She’ll spend the school year following a 1950s popularity guide, written by former teen model Betty Cornell. Here, Maya explores the true meaning of popularity, talks Betty Cornell, and reveals the most surprising takeaways from her experiment. 

PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE:You called your process a social experiment in popularity. What were some of the most shocking reactions from your classmates? What felt the most satisfying?

MAYA VAN WAGENEN: I was braced for a negative reaction, which is why the most surprising responses were the positive ones, when people complimented my clothes or told me they thought I was brave for being so inclusive. It was amazing to see the difference I could make in my school through my relatively small actions.

PRH: You kept the goal behind your experiment a secret, surprising your friends and classmates with an unexpected new look and attitude. Was there anything about the experiment that ended up surprising you?

MVW: I was not expecting the experiment to have such a profound effect on my own outlook. It taught me the importance of reaching out to others. It helped me to find confidence in myself and in the good that I can do in the world. Because of that year I have been able to make friends and I continue to work toward finding that person I want to be. I’m definitely closer thanks to Betty Cornell.

PRH: Tell us about your experience meeting Betty Cornell. Was she just like you imagined she would be?

MVW: Betty Cornell is wonderful, exactly as I’d imagined. She lives the book and really believed what she wrote. She and her family have been so supportive and amazing. Although we’ve only met in person a handful of times, we write letters and emails to each other. It’s been great to keep up this friendship even after the initial experiment.

PRH: If Betty were to write her Teenage Popularity Guide today, what do you think would be the most drastic difference between the modern version and her original version?

MVW: I think a lot of the fashion advice would change and I’m sure there would be a chapter on social media. But I believe that the core of Betty’s advice would be pretty much the same.

PRH: If you could go back in time and spend the day with one person from history, who would it be and why?

MVW: This is a tough question! There are so many amazing historical figures that I really can’t choose one hundred percent. I would love to spend the morning with Susan B. Anthony, the afternoon with Eleanor Roosevelt, and the evening with Ray Bradbury. They’ve been my heroes growing up and they’re all inspirational in many different ways.

PRH: What’s your biggest takeaway from this whole experience and what advice would you give a middle schooler today?

MVW: I learned that the true definition of popularity is not based on bullying, peer pressure, or exclusion. It’s about lifting others up, being kind and not judgmental, and opening up your circle of friends to allow others in. Teenage years are a difficult time and I think that through spreading a little kindness and awareness, students can make a massive difference in their schools and in the lives of others.
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