Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress by Maria Padian

Seguin Island Lighthouse, Maine

I have a thing for lighthouses. My passion came from spending summer vacations on Nantucket Island. I fell asleep to the lonely call of the foghorn. I read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.

Author Maria Padian

There’s a new author, Maria Padian, who listens to the call of lighthouses but through the ears of a 14-year-old girl. Brett McCarthy’s family summers on their own island. This is less extraordinary than it sounds. As Brett explains, there are 3,500 islands on the coast of Maine, and their island cabins have no facilities. The McCarthys build fairy houses for fun and watch the stars instead of TV.

Brett and her school friends are working on a pre-electrical solution to illuminating the 1803 lighthouse on the island. This lighthouse lighting scheme on its own would have been enough to capture my imagination as a child, but this engaging young adult novel sails into more turbulent seas.

What worked for Brett during her tween years, being a prankster and a boisterous jock, isn’t working anymore. Her best friend, Diane, is trying out for cheerleaders and attracting the attention of the hottest guy in their class. A new girl, Jeanne Anne, is taking Brett’s place as Diane’s BFF (Best Friend Forever.)

Brett strikes back and gets herself in worse trouble. Can you remember those pits you dug in childhood? You half-accidentally did something bad that led to something worse. Before you knew it, you’ve dug yourself in so deep you couldn’t climb out.

The only one holding out a hand to Brett is her beloved grandmother who lives in a tiny house in their yard. The problem is that Nonna now has troubles of her own. She’s fighting cancer. This sounds like an awful lot to serve up in a novel meant for girls aged 10-14, but Maria handles these topics with sensitivity and, more importantly, a sense of humor. This is a book that is designed for tweens; it speaks their language.

Brett is a tough talking soccer ace with a big vocabulary and an even bigger mouth. Personally, I did not like Brett’s bratty, aggressive behavior or her initial inability to take accountability for her actions. As the book progresses, Brett becomes more self-aware, and you can’t help but feel for her as she matures:

“Fine, be a jerk,” I said. It struck me that I was talking to myself.

I loved the character of Nonna and the relationship she has with Brett. This book would be an excellent choice for a child who has just lost a grandparent or for a girl having trouble with her friends or at school. The story is very easy to read and to understand.

Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress is an English teacher’s dream with each chapter titled with a vocabulary word. I found the didactic definitions and the dictionary style book jacket a turn-off, but at least they are good words like “apoplectic” that work well in the narrative. Our protagonist is trying to redefine herself, but perhaps this connection could have been made a bit more subtly.

The paperback edition due in October has a laughing girl on the cover. I wish it had a lighthouse. Don’t judge this book by its covers. Authors don't have much say.

Brett McCarthy won an American Library Association Notable Book Award for Young Adults and was a summer read recommendation in Parade. To do this as a first book is impressive and speaks to Maria’s talent as a young adult author. She’s willing to tackle the big issues but writes in a style that will appeal to kids. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Maria has just finished writing a new YA novel, Jersey Tomatoes are the Best, about 16-year-old best friends separated over a summer. One goes to tennis camp and the other to ballet camp. The novel deals with issues of competition and body image and how girls respond to pressure. Inner voices are key. Maria drew on her own childhood in New Jersey as well as the experience of raising two teenagers in Maine now. Maria is an avid tennis player and skier herself.

Maria and I met for a ski in Brunswick to talk about our writing. Does the trail look familiar? Flash back to November’s Walk in the Woods for some fall color. Snow transforms a landscape into a winter dream world. Yes, March is still winter in Maine.

I’ve gotten to know Maria over the years as we’ve both been vocal in local politics on environmental and educational issues. Our children (Maria’s are a bit older) went to the same elementary school, and we both turned to writing fiction at that time. In a small town we’re lucky to have found a community of authors including Charlotte Agell and Cynthia Lord.

We were also lucky to have such a perfect day. After the big snowstorm, the skies returned to bright winter blue.

I noticed with relief that the birches I admired in November had survived the winter storms. We glided past farms and through sun-speckled woods.

As we skied, Maria explained the appeal of writing for young adults. It’s an age when books make a huge impression on a personal level. To reach them, the author needs to evoke feelings and to avoid long passages of descriptive detail. The characters must sound like real kids and drive the narrative. Peer relationships are central. Maria finds this a fun age to work with because tweens/teens are going through big transitions and have such passion for stories that touch them. They reread favorite books and carry them close to their heart.

The end of the trail brought us to a frozen estuary leading to the open sea. Those are islands on the horizon. Maria’s fictional Mescataqua in mid-coast Maine sounds a lot like Brunswick. Maria writes about what she knows well.

Blog Watch: This post is part of Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club. Click on the typewriter icon for links to more book review blogs. An index of my other book reviews is in my sidebar. Library lovers check out this link to Curious Expeditions' photos of the world's most beautiful libraries.

Snow Watch: we had our fourth snow day on Monday, and I heard it stretched as far south as Pennsylvania. The Maine school system budgets for 5 snow days a year. Between snow days, teacher workshops, conferences and vacations, the kids have not had one full week of school this winter. They have used the time constructively to build a snow fort as high as the garage. This led to a new house rule: no climbing on the garage roof or using it as a slide.


Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

I love your blog!! We got snow in the upstate of South Carolina on Sunday and it was so beautiful. We do not see snow that much only ice.

D.A. Riser said...

Hi Sarah,
I loved that first pic you showed of the lighthouse. The book sounds interesting - it's definitely unique to start your chapters with a vocabulary word.

tina said...

I love your reviews of your books and the authors. You truly bring them to life. Great advice too on writing for teens!

Rose said...

LOL, I hope the new house rule doesn't mean there have been any accidents related to fort-building:)

Another excellent review, Sarah. Because it's a young adult novel, I probably won't read this. But I so wish I had been able to read blogs like yours back when I was teaching. It would have given me lots of new books to recommend to my students. Maria Padian knows her readers and what they like; tweens should enjoy this book.

Stacy Nyikos said...

I really liked the fact that you interviewed the author with the book. I'll have to try that for my next one. Plus, I've not read much about Maine. I didn't realize there are so many islands along the coast. It reminds me of northern Germany, where I lived for five years. Tons of little islands in the north sea. Not huge. Just there. Many are vacation destinations, but only for those "in the know." Cool review.

Mary Ellen said...

Thanks for the review - sort of. You know how I feel about your adding to my book list.

As a teen, I spent lazy summer days at Pemaquid Beach and Pemaquid Light. For social times: the beach, with its heady mix of sun, sand and sophisticated boys 'from away'. For introspection: the lighthouse, with its secret rock nooks and the sound of surf crashing on the rocks. Both places contributed to who I am.

As always, you stir up my Maine memories!

Rosaria Williams said...

I will definitely add Maine to my bucket list of places to visit.

Excellent book review/author biography. For many of us who enjoy writing and hope to publish someday, the suggestions about writing for young adults are on the mark.

I'm so glad I found your blog.

Anonymous said...

This sound wonderful! Great premise for the book. And I'm going to have to make a trip to Maine, if I keep reading your blog. :)

Sarah Laurence said...

All, I’m in a cyber café beating time on the parking meter while nursing a green tea to 80’s music (JavaNet Café). I’ll come visit tomorrow if I don’t make it to all your blogs and comments today. So nice to find them!

Tracy, thank you and welcome to my blog! Wow, snow in South Carolina! I hadn’t realized the storm stretched so far south. I’ll come visit.

DA, I took that photo a few weeks ago at Popham Beach but had to save it for Maria’s book – it deserves a lighthouse. If you look closely you can see the same lighthouse from another view (from Georgetown) in my banner painting. I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve reviewed.

Tina, easy to bring a book to life since I was close to it. I missed the birth since I was in England last March but never too late to celebrate. Maria does know teens.

Rose, rule came before a fall, happily! I can’t tell you how many friends and neighbors (including Maria) reported seeing my son on the roof. Nice thing about a small town – big mother is always watching you. I was inside writing my novel . You can imagine my shock, looking out the window to children sliding down the roof! Hard to stay one step ahead of the imaginative. I hope blogs like mine will match readers and books. Thanks!

Stacy, thanks and welcome to my blog! I’ll come read your review as soon as I can. It is fun when you get to know both author and book. Maine is an inspiration for writing and art. I’d love to see those islands in Germany. It’s fun to get the insiders perspective from blogs.

Mary Ellen, I enjoyed this book, but it’s definitely a young adult book. It doesn’t need to go on your list but recommend it to friends with girls. It is very Maine. Lucky you to have spent summers with a lighthouse too. That must be part of what keeps us in Maine.

Lakeviewer, Maine is a great place to visit. Our license plate says “Vactionland.” It is helpful to get writing tips from writers. I’m glad to have connected with you too!

Kathy, welcome to my blog! I enjoyed your review too.

Curmudgeon said...

Loved the link to the world's most beautiful libraries!

A Cuban In London said...

Loved both reviews and your lighthouse theme. It brought back memories of Havana and the lighthouse that sit atopt he Morro Castle. You can see it beaming the city whilst going around, from the roof of most buildings and it's really beautiful and evocative.

I loved your description of Maria Padin's character. Teenagers, or tweenagers in this case, are hard to describe and their voices present authors a challenger that more grown up personages might not. Cliches are difficult to avoid and you risk ending with a platitude-laden book.

I agree with you about judging a book by its cover. A lighthouse makes a good cover, more often than not.

Greetings from London.

Bee said...

I want to see the snow fort!

I was interested in one of the bits of the book that didn't appeal to you -- the vocabulary header. I like books that incorporate vocabulary in a very direct way; I loved that the Lemony Snicket series used "big" words, but then made defining them part of the narrative.

I was very struck by what you said about YA fiction: about the importance of books to their readers. The tween/teen voices put me off, though.

Lovely blue sky pictures; they almost look brittle.

Keri Mikulski said...

Love the pics!

And the author interview tied in with the book - perfect!

:) Great stuff.

Sarah Laurence said...

Curmudgeon, I thought you’d like the old library photos. An author friend (Charlotte Agell) forwarded the link to me. Even in this digital age, I still love books and libraries best of all. I’m looking forward to catching up with your blog too.

ACIL, what a magical sounding lighthouse! Maria said that it was Brett’s voice that called to her, that got her writing this first novel. Too late for me, but I’ll come visit tomorrow.

Bee, my son is rebuilding the fort. I should have gotten a photo before the great snowball battle of 3/09. It didn’t quite survive the onslaught of teenaged boys. I had so many kids here on our snow day, I lost track. The vocab word in the chapter headings were fun, but having the words dictionary defined in the text broke the narrative flow for me. I did love how Maria used big words but presented them in a context that was easy to understand. This book has a strong teen voice, but it’s meant to appeal to tweens not to adults. The bright blue skies make up for the stormy days. It was 0 degrees F when I woke up today.

Keri, welcome to my blog! I’ve been out all day with not much computer time. I’ll come visit tomorrow night.

Barrie said...

What a fantastic review, Sarah! I love the sound of this book (each chapter begins with a vocab word!!). And I love the photos! thanks for joining in.

TBM said...

Sarah, I enjoyed your YA reviews! I read a lot from this genre, since I have a 14 year old and try to keep up with what she's reading. I'll have to get these for me, I mean HER. ;-)

D.A. Riser said...

Hi Sarah -- Thanks for sharing that it's the same lighthouse. I would never have guessed. Very cool, indeed!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I so love reading your posts! They are always chock full of such interesting things. Blue skies and good books.

It does seem like a strange choice for the paperback cover. I agree, a lighthouse would seem more appropriate. Funny, I used to spend hours looking at the artwork on record album covers...yes I remember them...but now, books have replaced that fascination for me.

I shall try to remember your warning, and not slide off my garage roof anytime soon!!

Anil P said...

Just wondering how difficult is it to write a novel for young adults/teens as compared to others.

With the digital age well and truly in our midst, influencing the young generation in many ways, it might yet present a challenge to a writer who hasn't lived through the digital age as a young adult herself.

Donna said...

Her books sound very good and I enjoyed the review and information. I enjoy teen/young adult books (I'm reading Stephenie Meyer's "Breaking Dawn" right now, after all!), so I will have to give her a try.
We got hit with that snowstorm on Monday too here in Connecticut. I hope it was winter's last hurrah!

Sarah Laurence said...

Barrie, thanks for hosting another great book review club.

JAPRA, I’m reading YA with my daughter too. It is fun to share it with her and with my friends who write it.

DA, perspective changes perception.

Pamela, thank you! Now that I understand the cover process, I take it less seriously. The art team usually works off of a brief synopsis without having read the book! Authors may offer an opinion, but it’s the publisher’s decision. Glad to hear my son is keeping others safe. Can you believe it?

Anil, that’s a really good point. I’m the first digital generation – we had a computer terminal at home and one of the first home word processors since my father was working with new technology investments. I took computer science in high school as an elective but only know 2 old programing languages. I used the internet in college and e-mail in grad school. Still, my childhood was very different from my children’s. It helps to be a parent or a teacher when writing for children. Maria has learned a lot from her teenagers. Her daughter was very involved in this book, and it is dedicated to her.

Donna, Maria’s book is more geared for junior high readers. I still enjoyed reading it, but it’s not a cross-over adult fiction book like Meyer’s series. Maria does write well so it’s a pleasure to read. You got the snow too. Ours still hasn’t melted – maybe 2 feet left. It will be a long mud season.

david mcmahon said...

That sky is an amazing blue, Sarah.

Jenn Jilks said...

Beautiful shots!
Thanks for visiting my blog.
There are so many books to read - I am glad to be semi-retired...

Alyssa Goodnight said...

That was a truly awesome and unique review! I loved how you included photos and insights from the author!

It makes me cold just reading your blog. :)

Sarah Laurence said...

David, the clear blue sky is what I love about Maine winters.

Jenn and Alyssa, thank you and welcome to my blog. I enjoyed your book reviews too. It’s getting a bit warmer here.

kate smudges said...

You've made me want to read this book ~ if I had a daughter, I'd get it. Instead I'll see if our library has it and if not, recommend they order it.

Sarah Laurence said...

Kate, Brett is deffinitely a book that a library should get for young adult readers.

Prabath said...

I really like these scenery pics. Keep it up.

Sarah Laurence said...

Prabath, thanks and welcome to my blog. You’re my first commenter from Sri Lanka.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...


I enjoyed the reviews, especially Brett McCarthy; the photos are lovely. I'm loving your love affair with lighthouses. Love coming here!

Mama Shujaa.

Tessa said...

Interesting review. I'm not sure if I ever read YA literature as a YA! Although it may be that authors like Lynn Reid Banks, Rumor Godden and Nell Dunn would now be considered to have written for Young Adults?

Anonymous said...

What exactly is the theme to the book, Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress?

Sarah Laurence said...

Read it and find out.