One of the best middle-grade reads so far this summer is author Megan Jean Sovern‘s remarkable debut, The Meaning of Maggie (Chronicle Books, May). It is historical fiction—if you consider the ’80s history rather than “just a few years ago”—based on her own family’s experiences dealing with her father’s multiple sclerosis. And while it offers a window into how kids can cope with a parent’s debilitating illness, it is more about how family—with all its imperfections and irritations—can be the force that sustains us.
From the book’s opening lines, it’s clear that 11-year-old Maggie Mayfield is one of the smartest and most fascinating heroines to come along in ages. That’s not just because she asked for Coca-Cola stock for her birthday and still rises early with the alarm clock during summer vacation.
Maggie is a determined future President of the United States, repeat Student of the Month, and defending Science Fair champion. While her two older sisters subsist on a steady diet of hairspray, makeup, and boys, clear-thinking Maggie sets out to fix her family’s latest problem: Dad and the way his arms and legs have fallen asleep.
GeekMom talked with Megan about her powerful new novel, which Kirkus Reviews calls, “Smart, sensitive, sad, and funny.”
Question: The Meaning of Maggie is inspired by your own family and the ways all of you dealt with your dad’s illness. How much of Maggie is you? Is she the 11-year-old you were? Or wanted to be?
Megan Jean Sovern: Maggie and I share a similar story and the same weird eyebrows, and we both really like snacks. But the comparison sort of ends there. I’m meek and quiet, and Maggie is anything but. Maggie doesn’t give up. She goes to the edge of every earth to find what she’s looking for. She’s emotionally tough and filled to the brim with so many feelings, and I really admire that about her. I’m much more of an emotional wallflower.
Q: I loved every little thing about Maggie, from her planning to be President of the United States to her commitment to the science fair to setting her alarm clock even when school is out to avoid the “summer slide” in the morning routine. Also, lines like this:
“Usually I would have been beside myself about missing a day of school considering I didn’t even miss school when I was sick, which was seldom because I took twice the recommended daily dose of Flintstone vitamins. And even when a cold snuck past Fred and Wilma, I would still NEVER miss school.”
Could Maggie be any geekier?
MJS: Maggie could always be geekier. I mean there are whole realms of Middle Earth she’s yet to explore.
Q: While you dealt realistically with Maggie’s father’s MS, you were never heavy-handed. You managed to balance the seriousness of what she goes through with some delightful humor. How challenging was it to find that right balance? Did you find it hard to write for a young audience?
MJS: I wish I could say I went into a deep dark fire pit of emotion and fought my way tooth and nail to find the right balance of seriousness and silliness. But it was really natural to tell her story this way. In my own life, almost every sad and scary moment was punctuated by humor and grace, and that credit is owed entirely to my parents, who never let us forget to be funny. So it felt really honest to tell Maggie’s story the same way, and I hope young readers feel that.
Q: Maggie is saddled with two older sisters, Layla and Tiffany, who are into boys, their hair, their makeup, and more boys. The way you handle the differences between them is hilarious and heartwarming, as in this passage:
“I had almost liked hanging out with them all day. They weren’t so bad once you got over the fact that their lips were permanently locked to boys who probably didn’t floss.”
It made cheering for Maggie all the more fun. Were you inspired by protagonists from other children’s books when you created Maggie? Did you intend to make her such a smart, capable supergirl?
MJS: I intended to dress Maggie in many layers both literally and metaphorically. I wanted her to ruffle feathers and stand up for herself and never doubt her intelligence. I didn’t want her to be likeable and loveable on every single page. My favorite protagonists are always the ones who challenge you to stick with them even when they let you down. Especially when they let you down. You don’t give up on them because you know, deep down, they are going to pull through and it’s going to be magical. I hope readers know that Maggie is always going to find a way to pull up her bootstraps.
Q: For GeekMoms, like me, who are constantly searching out strong girls and meaningful stories for their kids, Maggie was a welcome discovery. What do you hope readers take away from Maggie’s story? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?
MJS: I hope readers give Maggie a fighting chance to figure things out in her own time. She’s precocious, and full of might, and sometimes really hard to love—and that’s okay. I hope she reflects the good, the bad, and the really hungry moments of adolescence. From the very beginning, I set out to a tell story of survival: a story about an ordinary family handed an extraordinary challenge, and it doesn’t tear them a part. It doesn’t send them into a tailspin of dystopian misery. Rather, it brings them together, makes them stronger and even a little funnier.
Q: Spaceballs! Maggie and her dad are big fans, and I suspect you are too! What gives?
MJS: One of the main reasons this novel is set in 1988 is because that’s the year Spaceballs came out on VHS. It’s also set in 1988 because I didn’t want a modern Maggie easily solving the mystery of her dad’s illness with a simple Google search. But mostly I’m just really obsessed with Spaceballs, and I take every chance I get to mention ludicrous speed.