Meg Cabot's How to Be Popular is the story of Steph Landry. Steph is about to start 11th grade. She has been something of an outcast in her small town ever since the legendary red Super Big Gulp incident five years earlier, in which she spilled a big gulp onto the white skirt of popular, and unforgiving, Lauren Moffat. This incident led to the phrase "way to pull a Steph Landry", now ubiquitous in Bloomfield, Indiana as a way of accusing someone of doing something really, really stupid.
Fortunately, Steph has two loyal, if quirky, friends. Becca is a somewhat ditsy former farm-girl who enjoys scrap-booking, and has a history of falling asleep in class. Jason is Steph's long-time best friend and neighbor, who she has recently, and disturbingly, discovered to be attractive. But Steph's unrequited heart belongs to school quarterback and dreamboat Mark Finley. Mark, sadly, is dating Lauren, and apparently doesn't even know that Steph exists.
As the school year begins, Steph has a bold plan for becoming popular. She's discovered an old book on the subject, which she takes as her bible. She changes her hair and makeup, buys new clothes, and even (gasp!) participates in school activities. And she discovers that it is possible to edge her way into the "A Crowd". But will it last? Will her efforts capture Mark's attention? Will she alienate her existing friends? Will she be able to overcome Lauren's enmity?
All of this is set against a backdrop of Steph's family chaos, her four (soon-to-be-five) siblings, her mother's feud with her beloved grandfather, her grandfather's upcoming wedding, and the fear caused by declining revenues at the family bookstore. You have to love a book in which the family owns a bookstore, don't you?
I did find this book predictable, for the most part, but I enjoyed it anyway. I listened to it on MP3, and found myself sneaking listens even when I didn't really have time for it. Steph is a realistically flawed, likable character, as are her friends and family members. Even when you know that Steph is making a mistake, and setting herself up for trouble, you still like her, and can relate to where she's coming from.
I think that the real power of How to Be Popular, as with most of Cabot's other books, is that it's pure fantasy fulfillment. I would guess that most kids who aren't in the in crowd fantasize at least occasionally that if they could just fix their hair, and get better clothes, and get a break somehow, they could crack the code of popularity. I know that I did.
Here's what I think is interesting about this book - it actually comes down on both sides of the popularity question. Steph's popularity plan requires a certain amount of hypocrisy, shallow behavior, and letting down of her friends and family. There are some negative quotations late in the book from famous people about the ephemeral nature of popularity. However, some of the advice from Steph's popularity manual is actually quite useful and lasting. For instance, don't make catty remarks about other people. Be dependable so that your friends can rely on you. Have your own interests, and don't be a afraid to let people see that you enjoy them.
Ultimately, How to Be Popular is about being true to yourself, and what you stand to gain from that in terms of friendship and popularity. No, the details of the story aren't particularly plausible. Would a whole town really continue to torment a girl for a single, minor mistake that happened five years earlier? No. Can one really achieve popularity instantly, by following the right instructions? No. But it's fun anyway. And Steph speaks to that unappreciated teen who lives inside many of us. I think that it will make an excellent teen movie, and will be a sure hit with current and former teenage girls.
Book: How to Be Popular
Author: Meg Cabot
Original Publication Date: 2006
Age Range: Young Adult
Other Blog Reviews: Once Upon a Bookshelf, Teen Book Review, Hip Librarians Book Blog
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.