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The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern

March 2nd, 2014 (03:29 pm)
artistic
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Current Mood: artistic
Current Song: Leverage score music

Maggie Mayfield is excited by life a lot of the time: she's eager to learn, she loves going to school, and she's got big plans for the future, including becoming the President of the United States. She tolerates - even loves - her two older sisters, Layla and Tiffany, who are in high school. She's very close to her parents, especially her dad, who shares his love of music and upbeat nature with her every chance they get. But Maggie's dad has multiple sclerosis, which has made him unable to walk or work the way he used to.

As the father's condition and abilities change, each family member's responsibilities change and shift: the mother gets a new job working at a hotel, the eldest daughter quietly assumes some of her mom's household duties, and so on. And though Maggie is extremely bright, since she's only eleven and is the youngest member of her household, her family tries to shield her from some things, purposely glossing over details that are revealed later, when it is obvious and necessary for her to know more.

Set in 1988 & 1989, Megan Jean Sovern's debut novel The Meaning of Maggie realistically handles the father's condition and its effects on the family without being either too depressing or too idealistic. The book's style and tone are just right for its target audience of tweens: sweet but not saccharine. It will also appeal to adults who were kids in the 80s; they are sure to delight over the pop culture references. Also delightful is the parents' relationship: their love is strong, their marriage is strong, and they are absolutely dedicated to one another. They are likewise dedicated to raising three strong, independent young women.

Inspired by the author's own life, The Meaning of Maggie has been made with love and is carefully crafted, with its bookend opening and closing pages and everything in-between. The family's ups and downs feel real, with sibling spats and silly car conversations that sound authentic and lively. Narrated by Maggie, many passages travel at the speed of thought, such as:

...I fought sleep with thoughts of everything Mom did without exploding. I mean, spontaneous combustion is a real thing because it's in the dictionary. How did she do so much And then I had a thought: Maybe she was powered by all of her freckles.  Mom was covered in freckles from head to toe. Maybe each one gave her energy to do every single thing she had to do. Maybe each one was a dish done, a towel folded, a dinner made. Maybe the ones clustered by her heart were for Layla, Dad, and me, and maybe even Tiffany. Maybe every cluster was like a constellation that powered her through one big deal to the next. - page 49

I like Maggie a lot. She's very smart, but she doesn't rub her intelligence in anyone's face. She simply has a thirst for knowledge, and she drinks up everything that she can, at school, at home, in back issues of National Geographic, at the science fair. She appreciates old photographs and paintings and music. She likes hearing people's personal histories and future plans. I especially liked the scenes that took place at the library and the museum, where she was so amazed and impressed by her surroundings:

I opened the library door and the smell of knowledge and dust hit me in the face. I loved everything about the library. I loved the rows and rows of books. I loved the cranky old ladies who read about knitting while knitting. I loved the book alarm that caught book thieves. I loved that while technology progressed, I could still depend on books because no one ever lied in books. - page 137

The following exchange comes from page 105, during her trip to the museum:

I searched the photos for electricity and swore I saw a spark here and there. "I'm going to make history one day too, you know."

Mom smiled. "You already are."

Though Maggie is intellectually ahead of her peers, her emotional age matches her real age, which is clear in her effervescent narrative:

...Tiffany [was] furious because she had to do her chores and mine for a few weeks, but whatever. I was trying to change the world. The only thing she ever changed was boyfriends. - page 135

The only question that remains, for me, is how the book got its title. I like it - it's alliterative, it's easy to remember, and I have always liked the name Maggie - but I don't know that it captures the story, which is ultimately not about the meaning of Maggie's name or her life or her place in the world, but rather about this specific year in her life and what happened to her family during that time.

A writer myself, I am attuned to title and character names and meanings. My latest piece had two working titles. When I was done, I couldn't decide between them, so I combined them, and I liked the result. (Thank goodness!) But that's another story for another time.

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern will be available in May. A portion of the proceeds of this book will be donated to the National MS Society.

If you like The Meaning of Maggie, you will also like The Encyclopedia of Me by Karen Rivers, which also has a female middle school protagonist who uses clever footnotes. One of my favorite footnotes in Maggie's story appears on page 102:

The amount of time and effort my sisters put into their looks is really astounding. I bet if you added it all up, they've both spent 80 to 80% of their lives shellacking on Bonne Bell Lip Smackers.

I have included The Meaning of Maggie on my booklist Tough Issues for Teens.