The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern – Review by Linda Urban
My dad won’t stop beeping.
If the opening lines of Megan Jean Sovern’s The Meaning of Maggie are just a tiny bit disorienting, then great, because that puts you on equal footing with our narrator, Maggie Mayfield, who will spend the rest of this smart, funny, emotionally honest novel trying to put together all the tiny signals that might help her make sense of the past year. The year which, as Maggie writes in her new birthday journal, “changed EVERYTHING.”
The beeping, it turns out is from hospital equipment – monitors and the like – to which her father is hooked up. Maggie continues: “And it’s impossible to concentrate while my dad is beeping. He’s been beeping for almost a whole day now. And it’s not the friendly beep of the ice cream truck backing up after you chased it half-way down the block either.”
I love that last sentence. It tells us so much about Maggie, doesn’t it?
- She’s young. We’ll soon learn that she is 12, but before that we already understand that she is not world-weary or super mature or tough. She’s a kid who still understands happiness through ice cream.
- The specificity of that sentence makes Maggie real. We see it. And we see her – a kid who is serious about her pursuit of junk food. Can’t you just tell this description comes straight from personal experience?
- That sentence performs an important function for the reader. The beeping is ominous. In a few more sentences we’ll discover we’re in a hospital and know something is wrong with Maggie’s dad. For readers like my daughter was at 10, that might be enough for her to close the book – afraid that what was to follow would be too scary or too sad. But there’s that ice cream truck sentence. It says, “Yeah, we’re going to go through some tough stuff, but it’s going to be okay – we’ll even have fun along the way.”
And we do have fun because Maggie is a wonderful, funny character with a whole lot of book smarts and far fewer social smarts. She’s intelligent and fancies herself mature. She’s going to be president some day –she has a recording of Hail to the Chief which she plays as she marches down the hallway on her 11th birthday – and for that birthday she gets the gift she most wanted, Coca-cola stock, and her mother, who understands her daughter’s presidential dreams, takes her on a tour of the local newspaper offices, since she’ll have to understand the media when she’s on the campaign trail.
While they are at the newspaper office we get a great example of Maggie’s voice, that not-quite-self-aware-trying-to-sound-like-she’s-got-it-all-figured-out voice that reminds me of how I suspect Sarah Pennypacker’s Clementine would sound if she were just a few years older. “We met an old school reporter named Hank who smelled like dust and deodorant. I asked him a bazillion questions like, ‘Are the facts cold and hard when you find them or do they need an incubation period?’ and, ‘Should I start drinking coffee now or wait until it can’t stunt my growth?’ But he didn’t really have any answers or maybe he did but he kept them secret because that’s what reporters do: They keep secrets right up until the big story breaks.”
I love that example not only for its voice, but for that last foreshadowing sentence. See, for much of the book child readers will be in the same boat as Maggie – not quite knowing exactly what’s going on with Maggie’s dad (though adult readers may recognize his symptoms as those of multiple sclerosis). At the end of the chapter Dad drops the bombshell that he has quit his job as an airline gate agent. He “took a tumble” at work. It’s a thing that Maggie knows has been happening – his legs or arms will just “go to sleep.” She doesn’t know much more than that and we soon understand that she and her family are engaging in an unspoken plan to keep it that way, to prolong her childhood.
It’s sort of like those grown-up jokes that Maggie’s father won’t explain. Says Maggie: “It was always infuriating and it wasn’t fair and it wasn’t nice and it wasn’t right to keep things from your children. Unless they were really scary things like matches or poison or beets because beets tasted like dirt.”
Her father’s illness is one of those scary things and it’s a secret that her family keeps – and Maggie keeps from herself – “until the big story breaks” and she can’t deny it any longer.
I’d like to talk for a minute about this family. I love this family. Maggie has two older sisters with whom she bickers realistically and a Mom who used to be a stay-at-home mom but now has taken a job in housekeeping at a hotel and isn’t always around in the way that Maggie wants. Of course, there is stress in the house, given this new situation, but the people in this family love each other. Mom and Dad love each other. They bring that love and patience and amazing good humor to everything in their lives – even the tough stuff – despite the change in their fortunes. When Maggie asks her dad if he’ll die he says: “Look at me. I’m young and I still have great hair, which means I’m too good looking to die. Everyone knows good looking people don’t die.” They have family rules with humor, too – among them: The only one who can make fun of Dad is Mom. If the humor in that statement isn’t entirely clear, it is because you need to read the book and really experience the layer upon layer of love Sovern creates in the everyday of the Mayfield family.
The book also explores friendship issues and first crushes and science fair projects and what it means to be the not-hot sister – but I’ll let you discover that for yourself when you read the Meaning of Maggie. There are only two more things I want to point out about this book, two things that made the book particularly meaningful to me and which may make it a particularly meaningful book for you and for your students.
- Although my own circumstances were different, I could see my own family’s experiences of attempting to adjust to a father’s illness. The combination of wanting to Do Something while simultaneously wanting to deny that anything is changing rang true, and I think that makes The Meaning of Maggie and important book for all readers who are undergoing any sort of family upheaval, be it illness, job loss, or just about anything that shakes the notion of who our parents are and how families work.
- If you’ve read any of my books, you’ll know that courage is an important theme for me and I was delighted to see it handled so beautifully in this book. The Mayfields, Maggie explains, are pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps people (even though they live in Georgia, which Maggie says is too hot for boots). I’ll leave you with this quote from the book:
“I guess I’m starting to realize that being brave isn’t so black and white. It isn’t something you either are or aren’t. It isn’t an absolute. Because you can run out of bravery. Your metaphorical bravery tank can run dry. But it’s up to you to fill it back up again. To muster all the courage you can. To pull up your bootstraps. And no one does this better than Dad. And he doesn’t even wear boots because he doesn’t need boots because his feet never touch the ground.”
Linda Urban is the award-winning author of three novels (The Center of Everything,Hound Dog True, and A Crooked Kind of Perfect) and a picture book illustrated by Henry Cole (Mouse was Mad). She writes early in the morning, gives workshops for kids and adults at schools and libraries as often as she can, and reads in all the times in between. Two new books are on the horizon: Little Red Henry, a picture book with illustrations by Madeline Valentine, and Milo in Ogregon, a funny fantasy novel. Both should be published in 2015.