YA book review: How To Be Popular

I just finished How To Be Popular, by Meg Cabot, and I have to say it’s an excellent start to my YA reading list. Based on the title, I never would have chosen this book, but when I went to the library with my list of books and authors, Meg Cabot was one of the few I found in my local library’s crappy YA collection, and this was one of two books of hers that was actually there. Man am I glad it was!

Plot synopsis

The story is, Steph is trying to clear her name after suffering persecution from her peers for five years after having spilled a Big Gulp on the skirt of the most popular girl in school back in sixth grade. While helping clean out her friend’s grandma’s attic, she comes across a book called How To Be Popular and uses it as her handbook in redeeming herself and removing from her town’s vernacular “Don’t pull a Steph Landry,” which has been a popular turn of phrase since the infamous Big Gulp incident. Her efforts are successful from the start, but of course she comes to discover that being popular is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Notes

Excerpts from “The Book,” as the handbook for popularity is referred to throughout, are included at the beginning of every chapter. This is a very cool, clever device.

The tense issues I’ve been dealing with in HF arise in this book. Because my story is in first person and there is a constant internal monologue, I’ve been having trouble with tense. I tend to set a scene in past tense, but once dialogue and internal response comes in, I lapse into present tense with everything. I’ve decided to just go with present tense throughout, but Meg Cabot uses both. Most of the time, this read fine, but sometimes it was distracting. I’m hoping that my story will read well in present tense. I’m nervous about writing in present because I remember being convinced not to back in the day, but right now I’m trying to trust my instincts and my voice, so I’m staying with it.

One thing Meg Cabot does very well that I’m terrible at is keeping a secret from her protagonist that is very clear to her readers. Steph’s best friend Jason likes her and she likes him, and their actions make this abundantly clear to the reader even though they haven’t quite figured it out for themselves yet. I am so bad at this. It is something I have to work on.

Though I have only seen the Princess Diaries movies and not actually read the books, one similarity I noticed right off the bat was the main character, plus a friend who’s a boy and a friend who’s a girl. All three are outcasts and proud (well, not Steph), and the main character has frizzy hair. So I’m wondering if a boy-girl-girl threesome of 1/3 frizzy haired freaks is a common formula or if this was just coincidence. I couldn’t help but picture the actors from the Princess Diaries movies for about the first third of the book.

This book definitely made me feel better about offering details about a person or place that have little to do with the plot. On one level, I know that such details are necessary for character-building and imagery, but I have trouble finding the line at which such a detail becomes Chekov’s gun (“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”). This is the type of thing that a workshop group could be key in helping me figure out. For the most part, in this book details were details and I read them as such, but there was one issue I thought would be more of a big deal, and that was a rift between Steph’s mother and grandpa. It was referred to throughout, so I thought it would end up being bigger than it was, but not so much. This is a good reminder that I’m not my readership. I read as a writer, so I’m looking for this stuff, and avoiding it in my writing is a good plan, but once in a while things can slip in. Or maybe I’m trying to rationalize and it was a little disappointing. If anyone read/has read this, please weigh in (I’m appealing to you, Sada and Danielle, as my only readers).

Do I recommend this book?

Absolutely. It’s fun, it’s filled with likable characters, the story is enjoyable. The writing is strong. I dig it.

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