It’s always a pleasure to read tales of books that have changed lives, and this has to be one of the most charming ever written.
Maya van Wagenen is a teenage girl living in Brownsville, Texas for whom school is the ‘armpit’ of her life. As a self-proclaimed Social Outcast, she places herself way down the popularity pecking order, and struggles to navigate the series of ‘brutal and painful’ social encounters that each school day presents.
One day, she comes across a book from the 1950s that her father bought as a curiosity in a thrift store. Betty Cornell’s Teen-age Popularity Guide is a compendium of health, beauty and social advice from its teenage model author, along the quaint lines of ‘Don’t wear makeup on your eyes, instead use Vaseline’, ‘Close your pores with ice cubes’ and ‘All girls should wear a girdle’.
Maya’s mother suggests that her budding author daughter follows the advice in the book during her eighth grade year and write about what happens. And so Maya embarks on a grand experiment, designating a different area of her life for improvement each month; from ‘Figure Problems’ in September and ‘Modelling Tricks’ in November, to ‘It’s a Date and Be a Hostess’ in May. Along the way she puts her hair in rag curlers, dons a string of pearls and braves the company of the Rich Gang Members and the Volleyball Girls. The process is often painful but Maya remains determined to face every challenge with ‘grace and wit’.
Although she never succeeds in getting close to the dreamy boy at her church, Maya’s overtures to the social groups higher in the pecking order ultimately have a surprising and heart-warming effect on the whole school community. Very occasionally it all gets a bit cheesy but in a way that teenage readers will love. There are many very funny, and also poignant moments, notably the death of a teacher who inspired Maya’s desire to be a writer. And who could argue with her conclusion that ‘popularity has more to do with kindness than keeping a wiggly backside in check’?
For British readers, Maya’s memoir will also provide absorbing and sometimes alarming insights into school life on the drug war-torn US/Mexican border: drug searches are frequent, and one day the entire school goes into lockdown, with Maya forced to hide in a storage cupboard whilst an armed robber is pursued by police in the neighbourhood.
In the US, ‘The Girl in Pearls’ is now a star: one of Time magazine’s most influential teens of 2013 and the youngest non-actor ever to get a film deal with Dreamworks. Maya thoroughly deserves her success: her book is sheer delight from beginning to end. I only hope the boy who called her a Fat Ugly Nerd, is now slowly eating his words.