Background: When two of our nieces visited recently, I stocked their room with some children's and young adult titles that I was looking to part with, for various reasons. The older one picked up a copy of Jennifer Ziegler's How NOT to be Popular, and promptly became consumed by the book, finished it in a couple of days, and asked if she could take it home to share with her best friend. (You may be sure that I was more than happy to say yes to that request). I hadn't read the book at that point (somehow I ended up with the ARC and the hardcover, which was why the book landed in the pile), but my niece's recommendation bumped it up on my list. (Incidentally, her younger sister's title of choice was Patches and Scratches (Simply Sarah) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, a title that hadn't quite grabbed me, but turned out to be perfect for a dog-obsessed eight-year-old.)
Review: How NOT to be Popular, by Jennifer Ziegler, is about 17-year-old Sugar Magnolia Dempsey (who understandably goes by Maggie), daughter of two wandering, peace activist parents (the kind of people who like to hang out at Renaissance Festivals, and pick up hitchhikers). Maggie has been moving frequently throughout her entire life, but this latest move, from Portland, OR to Austin, TX, isn't sitting well with her. She's had to leave behind her first real boyfriend, Trevor, her best friend, and a modicum of popularity. Faced with the task of starting all over again in Austin, where she only expects to be for the four months of her final semester of high school, Maggie decides to go on a deliberate quest NOT to be popular. That way, she reasons, leaving Austin at the end of the semester won't be so painful.
Maggie does everything that she can think of to avoid popularity, from ignoring the school's Alpha male to wearing outlandish clothes to telling the truth about her family's unconventional ways. And what she learns is that unpopularity is much harder to come by than she expects. While this twist is somewhat predictable (I mean, how interesting would a book be about someone who stays in the shadows, isn't noticed, and quietly leaves town after four months?), there are a number of other areas in which Ziegler avoids taking the easy way out. Maggie's relationship with her parents is complex - she's embarrassed by them, but close to them at the same time, wanting to be worthy of the trust they place in her. Maggie eats lunch with a girl who is clearly unpopular, and the other girl isn't the coolest person in the world in disguise - Penny has clear issues that suggest that she'll never be part of the in crowd. Maggie's eventual love interest turns out to be more multi-dimensional than she first suspects. All of this will keep the reader turning the pages.
The Austin setting is also dead-on, right down to the importance of the local music scene, ringing true as a logical stop on Maggie's parents' travels. But what I think makes How NOT to be Popular work is Maggie's voice, which ranges from wry to insightful to laugh-out-loud funny. Here are a few examples:
"She's pretty in a waxy way. An orangey salon tan clashes with her red cami ... too much eye makeup ... hair the color of candlelight. A textbook example of high school female perfection, right down to the constant look of disgust" (Page 19)
"This is one of Rosie's things. She loves doing laundry--specifically, hanging it to dry in the open air. This is why I don't wear a lot of denim. Sunshine-dried blue jeans can practically stand up and walk around on their own." (Page 56)
"Static roars in my ears and I fight the temptation to toss ketchup packets at her rear end." (Page 113)
"She looks like the fiercest, angriest, most ill-tempered sugarplum fairy you could ever meet." (Page 171)
The scene in which Maggie takes her parents to lunch in the school cafeteria is hysterical. No short quote could possibly do it justice.
Maggie is smart, and a basically good kid who, eventually, learns from her own mistakes. Young teens will be able to relate to her. If a tad implausible from time to time (like the way that Maggie runs into her nemesis around every corner), How NOT to be Popular is still a fun romp through the rough waters of high school society. Recommended for teen girls, especially fans of Meg Cabot's How to be Popular and the like.
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: January 2008
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Liv's Book Reviews, What an Awesome Title, I Crave Books, Em's Bookshelf, WordCandy Bookshelf, Through a Glass, Darkly
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.