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April 30, 2014

Teen finds meaning in 1950s guide

NEW YORK — 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,” published in 1953. 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 He held onto it for years because its outdated gems like “Beautiful hair is about the most important thing a girl has,” made him smile.

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 she 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 recalled in a recent interview. “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.’”

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