How Not to Be Popular by Jennifer Ziegler

Maggie Dempsey’s hippie parents still prefer a more nomadic life, so she’s not used to staying in the same place for very long. This move has her family headed for Austin, Texas, and Maggie is just plain tired. Tired of making new friends, tired of losing them again when her parents decide to try yet another place. Her plan for dealing with this is to be as weird and unpopular as possible, so it doesn’t hurt so much when she has to leave. So she wears strange clothes, she finds strange extracurricular activities, and she blows off any and all advances that the popular people make. But when she finds herself making friends with other outcasts (and getting a little bit emotionally involved with the most unlikely of boys), will she be able to keep on pretending, just to protect her heart?

Now, this is just my theory, but I would guess that a good many people who would be drawn to a book like this wouldn’t have any idea how to be popular in the first place. I myself was never popular, not the slightest bit, and the concept of popularity is always intriguing to me. How were all those people in my class popular? Who or what made them popular? Why were the rest of us not popular? (Well, I was voted “Smartest” and “Most Likely to Succeed” in my high school class, so I guess I was a little bit known. For being a nerd. But that is not the same thing as popularity. I hope we can agree on that.) And I think I could have worn the right clothes (instead of jumpsuits and galoshes, as Maggie did), joined the right clubs (instead of the geeky Helping Hands, as Maggie did), and been ultra-cool on local TV (instead of wearing a Queen Amidala costume and making lame puns, like Maggie did) and it wouldn’t have made a difference in my popularity level. There’s a certain something that popular people have that the rest of us, well, don’t. Full disclosure: I wore Star Trek t-shirts to school when I wasn’t busy wearing t-shirts representing my favorite Christian bands, so I was probably missing something about popularity on a very basic level.

Even though Maggie’s desire to be unpopular was difficult to empathize with on some levels (but, seriously, how does somebody get to be popular in the first place? I would genuinely like to know), her quest to keep from being hurt was something that anyone could understand. I enjoyed that one of the “Mean Girls” was given a bit more of a story than just being pretty and hateful, and that, as you would expect, the nerds/dweebs/outcasts were interesting and colorful, if a bit, well . . . nerdy and socially impaired. It was true to life, is what I am saying.

Maggie teaches people at her school about not following the crowd, being an individual, and being proud to represent your own interests, which is certainly a message that high school students need to hear more of. (Wear your Star Trek shirts, people! Wear them loud and proud!) Maggie needed to hear that too, since she’d been so focused on being popular in the past that she had missed all the smart, strange, wonderful people around her. But even better than that was the main lesson that Maggie learned: It is not good for man (or woman) to be alone. We as human beings were created to be in community and relationships with those around us. Maggie’s story is funny, but as we journey with her, we also see the serious side of what she is doing, how protecting herself can hurt those around her.

I thought this book faltered a little bit near the end, when Maggie started pushing people away by acting in ways we’d never really seen from her. That caught me a bit off guard, but other than that, I sailed right through, unable to put it down. Even if middle and high school students were only focusing on the silly things that Maggie was doing and wearing to keep people away, it would be hard to miss the idea that all people have value, no matter how strange they look, and that we should be proud to be appreciated for who we are. If that’s how not to be popular, it makes you wonder why popularity is so, well, popular in the first place.

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