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She can’t even join Team Latino because, while she is part Mexican from her mother’s side, her skin isn’t dark enough.‘In a school district that is 98 per cent Hispanic, I’m told that I don’t have enough of the right DNA to be part of Team Latino,’ she writes.
It’s such a private thing, a personal journey, a journal, and then all of a sudden it’s just…’ She trails off. We are sitting, the three of us, in a restaurant in New York in late April, on the day, Van Wagenen tells me, that Betty Cornell turns 86.Youth is a powerful promotional tool and Van Wagenen’s age and the teenage docudrama aspect of Popular make her an attractive proposition, but as Lazar points out, ‘When I first read Maya’s voice I was thrilled to see she was truly a writer.This wasn’t just a stunt.’ Her voice is assured and funny and the personal journey she tells resonates with readers of all ages.At 15 Van Wagenen is now the youngest non-actor to make a feature deal with a film studio and has been hailed by Time magazine as one of the most influential teenagers in America.It is a dizzying turn of events for a girl who says she thought the best-case scenario was that her journal might, one day, be published as an essay.She is too bookish and too unfashionable in her unnamed brands culled from thrift stores and Walmart supermarkets to be accepted by the Volleyball Girls (10) and Football Faction (nine).
She doesn’t deal in or take drugs or show any flesh, so that’s a no for Rich Gang Members (eight).
The adolescent subject-matter of Popular has been well mined in the exploding genre known as Young Adult (YA) literature, most notably in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Cecily Von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl book series which then became the basis of the TV series Gossip Girl starring Blake Lively.
What makes Van Wagenen’s coming-of-age tale so compelling is that it takes place not in a prestigious private school in the leafy environs of some East Coast town but in a school in ‘Borderlandia’, as she describes Brownsville, where students are compelled to carry mesh backpacks to ensure they are not hiding weapons inside them.
‘They’d say, “It’s the first day of the month, Maya, we checked the email, the next chapter’s not there.” I’d go, “No it’s not,” and they’d go, “You’re out of the will,”’ she says, laughing.
At the end of the school year Van Wagenen sent off the first draft of Popular to her uncle, a television producer, and events moved incredibly quickly.
Brownsville is a large city located on the southernmost tip of America next door to Mexico, and at her large middle school (for 11- to 14-year-olds) Maya, who had always been a loner, felt completely out of her depth.