Olivia Warwick | The Children’s Book Review | January 13, 2015
I recently came across a remarkable book by Maya Van Wagenen called Popular. I was just about to start the fifth grade, and I was nervous about the year after: middle school. I started reading, and soon I was absorbed in a story about much more than I had ever expected. I learned that popularity is not about having the coolest clothes or the coolest boyfriend and that it’s not a bad thing to be popular. You want people to like you. But for the right reasons. If you are kind to everyone and always wear a smile, you will be popular. Because it’s not a bad word. It’s a good word, if you use your popularity to treat others with compassion and respect.
Maya, who is now 16 and in the 11th grade, kindly agreed to answer my questions (and quite eloquently) despite preparing for her SAT exam. Her interview is inspiring and I hope you enjoy reading it.
Olivia Warwick: At just 15 years old, you’ve got a contract with Dreamworks. How do you feel about this exciting opportunity and what are your career plans for the future?
Maya Van Wagenen: I was blown away when I first heard the news, and a part of me still can’t believe it. As far as career plans go, I’m so grateful to Popular, for giving me an opportunity to join the writing world, which is where I’ve always wanted to be.
OW: Let us in on the upcoming film-Popular: One Geek’s Quest for the Impossible! Could you share some of the plans for the movie? Are you a big part of the production?
MVW: Unfortunately there’s not much I can share in regards to the film, but hopefully I’ll get a cameo!
OW: We learn much about your family in the book—Mom, Dad, Natalia, and Brodie—what are they like now?
MVW: While we’re in a different location, and all a little bit older, my family is pretty much the same as it is in the book. We’re just as quirky now as we were then.
OW: How has your life changed since moving to Georgia and writing the book?
MVW: I’m learning how to juggle high school, writing, and publicity. I’ve met a lot of people and done a bit of traveling for interviews, signings, and book festivals.
OW: Many people were surprised by how open you are in your writing. How do you feel about people reading your personal story?
MVW: It was difficult for me to picture at first, but it has been really rewarding to share that honesty with readers. It’s given others the chance to feel they can open up to me and share their stories, struggles, and triumphs.
OW: Have Kenzie and your other friends back in Brownsville read the book? What was their reaction to it?
MVW: Kenzie along with many of my Brownsville friends, have been super supportive of the book. Because all the names are changed, it gives those involved in the story a bit of an insider’s perspective on what happened that year.
OW: How long did it take you to finish your manuscript?
MVW: The first draft took the nine months of the school year, but the beginning of the project to publication took over two and a half years.
OW: We all know you love reading, British television, and chocolate. What are some of your other favorites?
MVW: I enjoy embroidering, crocheting, science fiction, spending time with my pet parrot, listening to music, and swing dancing.
OW: Which books have influenced and inspired you the most in both your writing and your life?
MVW: I think Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing had the biggest impact on how I view inspiration, life, and the creative process, so I frequently return to it when seeking guidance.
OW: Do you still keep a journal? Would you be willing to share a few details about the novel you’re working on?
MVW: I don’t keep a religious journal anymore, but I frequently jot down experiences I have in essays or poetry. My next book is YA realistic fiction. Although it has a different feel than Popular, I am really enjoying working on it.
OW: What do you feel “popularity” means to you now? How has your view changed since the 8th grade? Or is it still the same?
MVW: In the years after the experiment, to combat the complications of high school, I’ve stripped the core message I found from Betty’s book into simple terms I can apply every day. Popularity is being known as a genuinely kind person, someone who holds open doors, and is there when a friend needs someone to talk to. And from this popularity comes a quiet confidence and strength that can be used to stand up for yourself and for others.
About Maya Van Wagenen
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.
By Maya Van Wagenen
A breakout teen author explores the true meaning of popularity and how to survive middle school in this hysterically funny, touchingly honest contemporary memoir.
I was inspired by [Maya’s] journey and made a point of saving a copy of Popular’ for my sister, who starts middle school this fall. Maybe if I had read it when I was her age, it could have saved me from a world of hurt, or at least put that world in perspective.” Maude Apatow, New York Times Book Review
Can curlers, girdles, Vaseline, and a strand of pearls help a shy girl become popular?
Maya Van Wagenen is about to find out.
Stuck near the bottom of the social ladder at pretty much the lowest level of people at school who aren’t paid to be here,” Maya has never been popular. But before starting eighth grade, she decides to begin a unique social experiment: spend the school year following a 1950s popularity guide, written by former teen model Betty Cornell.
The real-life results are hilarious, painful, and filled with unexpected surprises. Told with humor and grace, Maya’s journey offers readers of all ages a thoroughly contemporary example of kindness and self-confidence, along with a better understanding of what it means to be popular.
Ages 12 and up | Publisher: Dutton Juvenile | 2014 | ISBN-13: 978-0525426813
Olivia Warwick is 10 years old. She is an avid reader, writer, and performer. Olivia loves sushi and dogs and her favorite color is red. She is obsessed with Michael Jackson and jazz music. Olivia is so happy to be a part of The Children’s Book Review!