The Popularity Project by Joddie Zeng
I started writing at 13. Or maybe it was 12. All I know was that it was in eighth grade – and I thought I was the best thing ever. I wrote my first book in a matter of a few days, and to quote Mr. Trump, it was beautiful. Everyone loved it…or maybe they were just being really, really nice at the time. Because when a few years later, I went back and looked at it? It sucked – hardcore. I had 23 main characters, the narration would shift continuously, and there were names like Hero and November. I seriously don’t even know what to do with that.
So when I saw that the writer of this book was only 14 when she wrote it, I panicked and had flashbacks back to this horrid book in my life. Would she create a monster like I did?
The answer is no – because Ms. Joddie Zeng rocked it. To write this kind of book at age 14? We should be expecting some major things from her, because she can only get better from here. And to tell the truth, there really isn’t much to get better from with her very good writing style.
I did have some ups and down with this book. I decided to read Crooked Kingdom – high fantasy book set in alternative Russia with questionable moral characters – before this, so it was hard to get back into a cute contemp set in modern day with adorable, cheesy goodness. So it started off a bit rough for me, but once I got into it, I really got into it. It was a quick read and there was a really nice flow which was helped by Joddie’s readable writing style.
This book focused on a girl named Ariella who is a smartie pants girl who is forced into a special project class because they’ve run out of classes to give her. Her teacher decides to give her a project – hence the name, the popularity project – where she must go undercover in a new high school where she has to pretend to be something that she hates – cliche, popular peeps. Lots of changing ensues and a romance forms with the man that she’s supposed to be shadowing.
I liked all the characters for the most part. Even the side characters had so much life to them, which was a real treat. At first, I was worried because I felt Ariella was too judgy, but to be honest, she reminded me of myself a bit. I had a really hipster phase in my youth where I judged the popular crew and mainstream stuff just because they stood for something that my hipster self didn’t agree with. I liked that she became less judgey throughout and to be truthful, she reminded me of people I know so I felt it was very realistic.
I loved Flora and Elliot. They were both so realistic, and I totally shipped them hardcore. I wouldn’t have minded reading their story as well. 😄 I also loved Elliot’s creepiness for a hot second and then turned out to be one of the best characters in the book. Flora was also great, and I did appreciate the friendship that her and Ariella had. They really seemed to care for one another, and they were kind of offbeat, which worked.
I did have some major issues with Ashton at first. I felt he was wayyyyyy too pushy, and I had to keep looking at the back of the book to make sure he was supposed to be the love interest. A few more chapters in and I was more into him as the love interest, but I still was a little hesitant about him. When he tried to force a kiss between him and Ariella, like, on her first day of meeting her? I thought it was totally creepy and it put me off. Once we got to know him better, I did like him, and I did ship him with Ariella. I just wish that first beginning was addressed a bit better. You could see really well how he did change, and I think that shows Ms. Zeng’s ability to form good characterization. She gave a very authentic voice to her characters.
I did like the plot. I mean, walking into this, you know it’s going to have the cliche, romance plot and not much else. But I liked the growth that the author provided for the characters and I thought the whole concept with the project was a very unique spin. I liked that little extra twist, and it was the reason for the whole delicious angst at the end (I love me some angst and she gave it so good in the last few chapters).
Can we also talk about how adorable the format was? I loved all the little stars that began each chapter. They were so cute and I loved how it tied back into Ariella’s hobby. And look at that! A YA heroine who has a hobby! Can we all take a second and cheer for that?
The only real big issue that I had with this novel was some of the characterization of the other girls in the novel and I suppose you can say shaming. There was a lot of good female characterization in this book – Flora’s and Ariella’s friendship was great and they never put down one another in a mean way or ditched each other for a guy or anyone else. However, there still was a lot of shaming, and it caused me to put down the book a few times. The whole part in the pizzeria? Where she totally hated on the waitress for no reason? It was so unrealistic that the waitress would even be mad at them in the first place let alone be checking out the guys, and then for the girls to critique her on her life choices? I know I read way too much into that, but I think just seeing it so much in other YA books just made it blow for me. It also happened again with Tara, and she got no other characterization other than dumb, cheerleader slut mean girl. I just wanted something a little more and a lot less shaming. This was the reason I knocked off a star.
Other than that reason, I really did enjoy this book. Joddie Zeng may have only been 14 when she wrote this, but she seemed a heck of a lot older. This a professionally written and crafted book and if you have any qualms because of her age, dash them. She created an interesting plot, finely tuned characters, adorable ships and romances, and just a feel good novel. I did have some issues with it, and while it did make me take some time away from it, I never felt it was enough to stop or detract majorly from the story. Joddie has a bright future for her in writing, and I will definitely be on the lookout for her future books! I would recommend!
Four out of five stars!
*I won this in a Goodreads giveaway. In no way did that change my views or review of this novel. Thank you so much to Joddie Zeng for sending me a copy!*
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