'Geek' lands book, movie living by 1950s 'popularity guide'
High schooler Maya Van Wagenen wanted to know what it took to be popular. What she found got her a six-figure book deal and a ticket to Hollywood.
After discovering her father's forgotten copy of Betty Cornell's 1958 etiquette manual "Teen-Age Popularity Guide" the summer before she started eighth grade, the self-described "geek" launched an experiment in applying its lessons to her life as a 21st century outsider.
This week, Dreamworks announced that her story — which will already be the basis for her forthcoming memoir — will be turned into a movie.
“It’s mindboggling,” the now-15-year-old told TODAY.com. “Every day it’s something new that I wasn’t expecting.”
Being the center of attention is an unexpected turn for the Statesboro, Georgia tenth grader, who says she always struggled with making friends and finding self confidence.
“I had the braces and the glasses. I got extremely good grades. I didn’t have any social life,” she says of her middle school self.
The idea for her project was born when she found the book during the family's move to Brownsville, Texas.
“My mom said I should follow the advice and see how it applied to my life and write about what happened,” she explains. “At first I was really against the idea because I didn’t want to be made fun of more than I already was. I knew this would mean putting myself out there and getting noticed, which is a little dangerous in middle school. But there was a part of me that wanted to give it a try. And after I finished the first month, I knew I was going to finish [the whole book].”
The "Teen-age Popularity Guide" was just one of several etiquette books written in the 1950s by Cornell, a former teen model from Teaneck, New Jersey. Organized around themes like dieting, makeup, hosting a party, and going to a dance, the guide includes advice on the importance of wearing pearls and the proper way to shave your legs.
Van Wagenen followed one of the book's rules each month, and kept a detailed record of the experience in her journal. She didn't tell anyone outside of her family about the experiment — not even her closest friends.
“They thought I was going crazy,” she recalls. “I had people ask me if I changed religions, if I’d suddenly got a boyfriend, if I just wanted to dress like an old lady!”
In one of her more extreme tasks, she wore a girdle for an entire month. “Actually they’re not too terribly difficult to find,” she jokes. “But they’re not the most comfortable things.”
She hoped the experience would give her confidence and make her feel liked by her peers, and through Cornell's writing, she says she began to see the author as the friend she had always wanted, one who could give her advice and tell her how to act.
“It gave me an excuse, in some ways to act braver than I felt,” Van Wagenen admits. “Mostly what I faked was the confidence. And once you fake it long enough it starts to feel real, and before you know you are more confident.”
Her newfound confidence made the project a success, but that was nothing compared to what Van Wagenen was about to experience next.
The summer after she finished her experiment, she began to revisit and edit her journal. Eventually she shared the work with her family, who helped get it in the hands of an agent, Daniel Lazar of Writers House.
“Dan didn’t even read the entire thing before calling me and saying he wanted to work with me,” explains Van Wagenen. In June, he helped net her a $300,000 two-book deal with Dutton Children's Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group.
“From the first page, it was instantly clear that 'Popular' was something special,” Julie Strauss-Gabel, President and Publisher of Dutton Children’s Books, said in a statement. “Celebrating self-confidence and kindness, Maya’s bold and brilliant story has something to say to readers of all ages.”
And the film version of Van Wagenen's story is already in motion: Amy B. Harris, showrunner of the popular CW drama "The Carrie Diaries," is currently attached to pen the script. As for who would play her in a movie? “I’d want an unknown,” Van Wagenen says. “I just feel like that would be more accurate in some ways.”
The teen, who cites Charles Dickens, Louise Rennison and Tina Fey as some of her favorite authors, is already thinking about her second book, which she hopes will be a novel. Until then, she will do her best to be a normal high schooler, even if normal means editing her first book in the room she shares with her younger brother.
“The message of the book itself is to be kind to others and to reach out to people,” she says, adding that the whole experience has taught her about what is really important in life. “Create what you love. That’s more rewarding than having people to tell you it’s phenomenal. Knowing that what you create makes you happy—that’s the best reward.”
Look for Maya Van Wagenen’s first interview on TODAY following the book’s release in April.