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Review: The Meaning of Maggie

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern
Chronicle 2014
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It’s easy to fall into a reading rut, which isn’t so bad when unread novels by your longtime favorites are stacked next to your bed in teetering piles, small monuments to the nights of your childhood when you were first introduced to the characters by the glow of a flashlight beneath the blankets. At this moment, recently published books by Lynne Rae Perkins, Cynthia Kadohata, and Rebecca Stead lie within armsreach of my pillow, but as eagerly as I anticipate diving into their pages, I felt the desire several weeks ago to bring home from the bookstore something I was unfamiliar with, by a writer I’d never heard of, as kind of an injection of newness into my reading life. This is why I picked up The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern.

I carried it around for three weeks before getting through chapter two, seriously regretting my moment of spontaneity. Its setup was interesting enough: a fifth-grade girl sits at her ailing father’s bedside in a hospital room, explaining in her tween voice how they both got there. She quickly introduces us to her older, hotter sisters (“So I called Tiffany and Layla and they opened their doors at the same time because they’re pretty much the same person. With the same brain. And the same bra size”), her classic-rock-loving, wheelchair-bound father, and her no-nonsense, ex-hippie mother, and leads us through a recollection of her tenth birthday exactly a year ago.

Maggie’s voice is instantly recognizable as that of a smart, inquisitive, overachieving pre-adolescent girl, eager to satisfy her own lofty ambitions despite very little urging by her parents or teachers, one of those self-driven, self-centered young people who hasn’t yet discovered her own limitations, except those limitations imposed on her by the grownups (and sisters) in her life. My problem with getting from chapter one to chapter two had everything to do with that voice. So well does it represent the mannerisms of typical (smart) fifth-grade girlspeak that it was just about unbearable in large doses, at least near the beginning of the book. I love listening to children tell me their stories, but not for four hours, which is what I predicted would be necessary to read this to the end.

When I finally got tired of carrying the book around, and when the call of those other unread books shifted into urgency, I made up my mind to power through, and before I reached the midpoint, I discovered that I had not only gotten used to Maggie’s voice, but I had grown fond of it. I was amused by the (certainly intentional) anachronisms, Maggie’s keen (yet naive) attention to detail, and her ability to let us see situations from other character’s points of view even while she, as narrator, is completely oblivious to them herself. I stopped noticing how many of Maggie’s sentences begin with conjunctions, and I started noticing how skillful the author is in painting one picture for young readers and a different picture for older readers.

Maggie’s father is seriously unwell in a way that makes this story an easy tear-jerker of sorts, but Sovern doesn’t earn sentiment with greeting-card syrupiness. Instead, she gives us flashes of revelation as we see how his condition affects each member of his family. Maggie is being kept largely in the dark when it comes to details of his illness, but when Maggie describes for us how her sister, not her mother, comes to an awards breakfast at school, we see a bigger picture that Maggie herself hasn’t opened her eyes to.

The Meaning of Maggie should appeal to a pretty wide range of tweeners, but it will be special to overachieving students who feel alienated because of their love for learning. I was won over by Maggie’s cluelessness with social situations and by the author’s great skill in creating her narrator’s self-centered view while giving her readers a wider angle.

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