There’s a tendency when reviewing middle grade and young adult fiction to give certain things a pass; they’re not books written for the most experienced and discerning readers, so should they really be held to the same standards? In fact, I know of reviewers of these books who think that MG and YA novels are failed adult fiction, stripped of their more risque parts and sold to an audience who wouldn’t know the difference anyway.
So, with that in mind, let me just start by saying this about The Meaning of Maggie: No matter who reads this book –middle grade reader, jaded teen, lost twenty-something, thirty-six year old, forty-two year old, retirement home resident– it is brilliant. It should not be given a pass on any level, because it needs no pass. It is not good “for a book for kids,” it is one of the finest novels I’ve ever read, directed at any market.
The Meaning of Maggie, essentially, takes place between Maggie’s eleventh and twelfth birthdays; a year in which she discovers that her father’s illness, which she previously hadn’t considered particularly serious, is in fact quite a big deal. There’s a lot of family strife and a lot of self-centered pre-teen drama along the way, but Megan Jean Sovern always keeps things from falling into the maudlin, and peppers the proceedings with lots of humor, as well as many moments of genuine hilarity.
Sovern, who was an advertising copywriter before writing this, has, in Maggie, created a pre-teen heroine to rival Scout Finch, and arguably as well-written. (This, I should say, is literally the highest praise I can offer: To Kill A Mockingbird, for me, is the single greatest piece of fiction ever, and Scout is the greatest narrator… I’ve seen books compared favorably to it in the past and have always balked.) Sovern’s ability to write an eleven year-old is stunning, neither falling prey to the trap of making her too cute, nor too beyond-her-years; she’s created a character who believes herself to be on the forty-ish side of eleven, but who betrays this with amazingly accurate eleven year-old asides at every turn, and an eleven year-old’s ability to focus on not-quite-the-right-thing in a moment of anxiety. It’s a genius high-wire act, one that for a short time I worried might drop to one side or the other, but never does.
Sovern’s use of footnotes throughout –one of my favorite tricks in fiction1– helps this along; occasionally Maggie will say something that strikes as a bit too mature, until you read the accompanying footnote, and it all makes perfect sense.
The characterizations across the board are spot-on, especially the two sisters, Layla and Tiffany. Maggie sees them as the hot popular girls, and vapid to boot, but we discover along with her things about them that sheds some light, rounding them out, and showing that you can’t judge a book by its cover2: There is unexpected depth there. In most novels (again, for any age) these characters would have remained shallow, half-drawn punchlines, but Sovern is too skilled and has too much love for her characters to let that happen.
Which makes sense: The Meaning of Maggie is inspired by Sovern’s own life and family; she has two sisters, who –judging by the acknowledgments3– seem to fit at least the general idea of Maggie’s siblings. Her own father, too, struggled against the same disease as Maggie’s, but unfortunately lost his battle; as a dad myself, I cannot imagine a better tribute to a person than a story so beautifully told and a character so lovingly rendered. I feel that, though I could never know him, I have a sense of his importance in the world, and of the mark he made upon his family.
The Meaning of Maggie is a wonder, an extraordinarily rare jewel of a book. My general feeling about literature is that nothing is for everyone; the number of books I’ve read in my life that I can’t understand someone not liking is very short, and includes To Kill A Mockingbird, In Cold Blood, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and A Prayer for Owen Meaney. And while I’m not necessarily saying this shares quite that same exalted air, I can’t for the life of me picture with all of my imagination the person who would not, could not love The Meaning of Maggie.
1. A few examples include Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman; Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartimeaus Trilogy; and, from the world of KidLit, Patricia Finney’s great I, Jack, which is written from the point of view of a kind of, well, dumb dog, with footnotes written by cats.↩
2. Speaking of which, the jacket design –by Amelia May Mack, with a photo by Anja Mulder– is fantastic! What seems like a bit of a hodge podge (though an appealing one) before you crack the book open makes absolute sense when you close it for a final time.↩
3. I never read acknowledgments, but when I finished the last page of the story, I wasn’t quite ready to move on, so I read what was left, and all that was left were the acknowledgments…↩
Kinderlit requested and received a copy of The Meaning of Maggie in exchange for an honest review. Read more about our review policy here.