Friday, October 17, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Meaning of Maggie, by Megan Jean Sovern

Maggie Mayfield, a precocious sixth grader, is given a beautiful journal for her birthday - the perfect gift for an aspiring memoirist and future President of the United States! Maggie dutifully records her year: a year, it turns out, that sees her father slowly lose his faculties to multiple sclerosis. Maggie keenly observes her family dynamics while pushing herself academically and emotionally through the trials and triumphs that await her.

Maggie is a bit like a younger version of Jaclyn Moriarty’s titular character in The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie. She is an extraordinary know-it-all, a sassy lass who insinuates herself into situations without a shred of self-awareness, one whose embarrassing lack of social cues simultaneously rewards and punishes her. She’s winning her umpteenth consecutive Student of the Month award while flopping spectacularly at physical education. This is a kid who elicits cheers and groans, often within a single paragraph.

Sovern is a first-time author, and The Meaning of Maggie is reportedly a fictionalized memoir. This closeness to the source material is what initially makes the novel intriguing and enjoyable, but also what ultimately buckles the proceedings entirely.

Maggie’s narration is consistently enjoyable. As the youngest sister, she paints energetic portraits of her older siblings. Layla, the eldest, is too cool to be even vaguely aware of Maggie’s existence, and Tiffany, the shrill middle sister, approaches caricature-like status, especially in Maggie’s snarky, hilarious footnotes. “When Layla was little Dad called her Layla Hayla because he thought she was the bee’s knees. He calls me “Mags” because it sounds cool and he calls Tiffany “Tiffany” because if you call her anything else, she loses her mind” (p. 55).

As the family comes to terms with Dad’s “sleepy” limbs, Maggie’s observations become heartbreaking. She seems innocent of, even removed from, the situation’s gravity, and the family’s interactions between and among each other resonate with a sad, heavy hope. Small, simple revelations paint a family in crisis, even if Maggie remains completely and curiously unaware. Maggie’s slow understanding of the severity of her father’s condition serves as the book’s emotional crossroads, and Sovern handles the awakening with grace. Sovern’s treatment of multiple sclerosis is thoughtful, compassionate, and immediate. It’s a beautiful portrait of a family dealing with the unthinkable.

Reviewers, both for professional publications and on Goodreads, have indicated that the novel’s time period (the late 1980s) seemed flimsy and awkward. It certainly isn’t fully realized nor is it integral to the story, and Sovern unfortunately stumbles with several anachronisms. I was Maggie’s age in 1988, and, to my recollection, remember almost no discussion of medical marijuana; nor do I recall girls being referred to as “hotties." I’m fairly certain, too, that the use of full-stops as emphasis (like. doing. this.) is a more recent literary device, and that most 11-year-olds would not have employed such techniques in their journals.

Maggie, too, is a strangely inconsistent character, even when her musings are hilarious. This is a child who reads voraciously and is academically superior to her peers, yet doesn’t know what a spleen is. She’s childish and mawkish on some pages and way-beyond-her-years on others. The “precious” quotient is through the roof, and not in the way puppies are precious. More in the way that hipsters who enjoy pickling foods are precious.

Despite these flaws, the book is enjoyable and, in my school library, it has circulated like crazy. My students, especially the girls, love it, and I can understand why it is so dear to them. Maggie is a sparkplug of a character, and her wittiness will appeal to many young readers. The Meaning of Maggie, in terms of Newbery-ness, lacks any distinguishing quality, and will likely be but a blip on the radar come awards season. Although its treatment of multiple sclerosis is sensitive and uplifting, I doubt, too, that it will nab a Schneider Family Book Award (which, if I were to bet, will go to Lisa Graff’s delightful Absolutely Almost).

Sorry, Maggie. My students love you, but I don’t think the Newbery committee will.

Published in May by Chronicle Books 


Today's guest reviewer is Joe Prince, Librarian at Marshall Middle School, and Chair of the North Allegheny (PA) School District Library Department. Check out his 6th Grade Mock Newbery -- it's great!

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