Review of the Day: Maggie Lou, Firefox by Arnolda Dufour Bowes, ill. Karlene Harvey
Maggie Lou, Firefox
By Arnolda Dufour Bowes
On shelves now
Boy, we sure love our tropes in children’s books. Once we’ve located a particular kind of book for kids that does a particular kind of thing, every book that comes after can, nay MUST, be compared to it. Take Ramona G. Quimby, for example. When Beverly Cleary wrote her best-known heroine, little did she know that she had just set the bar for “spunky” female heroines. I use the word “spunky” in quotations because Ramona was always a better character than that moniker, but essentially anytime any female identifying character anywhere near Ramona’s age range appears on the pages of a book for children, she will immediately be compared to or equated with Ms. Quimby. And yet, I’ve not heard anyone compare Maggie Lou, Firefox, the incredible heroine of Arnolda Dufour Bowes’s book of the same name, spoken of in the same breath as that former queen of chaos. I puzzled over this for a while until I just pretty much figured that Maggie simply isn’t well-known enough yet to appear on people’s radar in this way. More fool they. With more personality than a little book of this sort could possibly contain, Maggie represents the kind of slambang, fantastic personality you find only once in a blue moon. You’re not going to want to miss this one.
Meet Maggie Lou, Firefox. Growing up with a large family she has just a ton of energy tooling around inside of her. So much so, in fact, that when she wants something she tends to get it . . . sorta. Three separate stories tell of three different times that Maggie Lou got what she wanted in a roundabout manner. In the first story, Maggie Lou manages to convince her grandfather to teach her how to box. Trouble is, it’s nothing like what she imagined it would be. In her second story she gets her dad to take her to his construction site in the hopes of getting some scrap wood, but the work she finds there is tougher than she expected. Finally, in the third story Maggie Lou finally gets to go on a deer hunt with some of her family members. But maybe she’s prepared a little TOO well for the occasion. Hilarious and strange by turns, these stories are mess incarnate and you are there for every minute of it.
It wasn’t that long ago that we saw a significant push for publishers to start giving young readers a better, and more abundant, crop of voices from a more diverse range of experiences and ethnicities. So we saw a slight uptick in the number of titles produced, but it wasn’t long until folks started identifying other problems. For example, why were so many of the books coming out so chock full of trauma? It’s one thing for a kid to see themselves reflected in a book. It’s another thing entirely if the only reflection they see is a consistently miserable one. So for years, I’ve been advocating for more Booger Beards. Booger Beard, lord love it, was a delightfully disgusting Latinx picture book that came out years ago, and highlighted for me the fact that while white characters could be gross and silly, we had a real dearth of BIPOC characters doing the same thing. Certainly this extends to Indigenous characters as well, the vast majority of them dealing with very realistic generational trauma. Where were the funny books? Aside from the YA Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (and that’s a whole different conversation right there) I can’t think of a single funny chapter book title for young readers. Until now.
Now there is “funny” and then there’s “funny”. You have your books that think that they’re funny, and then you have the books that come by their humor honestly. Maggie Lou is definitely in the latter category. It all comes down to tone, of course. It was a bold move of Bowes to write her book entirely in the first person. Do that and it’s more difficult for the author to step away from their main character to comment on their thoughts and actions. But being directly in Maggie’s head is a good move since she’s so brimming with self-confidence that you feel oddly safe in there. Like, no matter what anyone throws at her (and people are sometimes literally throwing hands in her direction, so there you go) she’s ready for it. She’s also just getting into kooky scrapes with family members that are having their own lives and wacky interactions a well.
That family is a huge part of why this book works as well as it does. Maggie has a core group of uncles, grandparents, siblings, you name it all floating around her. But what felt right about the whole situation (and, indeed, the whole book) was the messiness of it. You look at these people and you know for a fact that they’ve got their own lives that they’re leading. They’re in and out, but one thing that rang particularly true for me was the way in which they razzed one another. I remember once hearing a comedian say that sick burns were his family’s love language, and I think that that’s gotta be the case here. In the third story, Maggie has to figure out what nickname she’s going to get from her family when she goes on her first deer hunt. Will she be known for the rest of her days as Smokey Oakley because she tried to “smoke” her clothes to hide from the deer (with devastating effects) or will she be Prairiewalker, Sister of Bushwalker (which, trust me, is another kind of insult). As Maggie puts it, “My family thinks they are all comedians, and their teasing is endless, especially when you do something silly or wrong. It’s our way of connecting, Kohkom says.” Could anything feel more real than that?
Now let’s talk about what sets this book apart and makes it REALLY different from all the other middle grade novels out there. The fact of the matter is that this book includes scenes and scenarios that are just at odds with the vast bulk of older chapter book fiction out there today. First off, it ain’t about feelings. Not a jot. I mean, Maggie Lou has feelings. Strong ones! But those feelings aren’t the crux of the novel. And I have nothing against feeling-based fiction, but once in a while it is a bit of a relief to read something that involves socking people in the jaw, working on a construction site, and shooting deer. That’s really what makes this book such an incredible publication in the year 2023. Girls in books don’t typically learn to box in a ring. They’re sometimes from working class families where multiple members work on construction sites, but even when they are I rarely see their older female cousins (who in the pictures sports a veritable sleeve of tats) acting as crew manager on a site. And I definitely never see hunting, a sport that many families in this country participate in, presented in anything but a dire light. To see all of this laid out in such a straightforward manner (with plenty of jokes worked into the seams) is just so fresh and new and interesting. A lot of middle grade novels have a tendency to blend together. This book? It stands out.
Another way it stands out is that it reads younger than a lot of books. A bit over the early chapter book level, but younger than those 200+ page novels you tend to see. If I had to be precise, I’d say this was ideal for the 3rd and 4th grader crowd. So with that in mind, it’s a bit odd to see Maggie Lou presented here as a 12-13 year old. She reads much much younger. For example, while I love that she’s boxing in a ring in a tutu, how many girls that age are still even wearing tutus on the regular? Maggie’s personality is definitely on the 3rd and 4th grader range and nowhere near the 6th to 7th grader area where Bowes has placed her. I suspect she may have been aged up at some point in the editing process and her personality never quite caught up. That’s a mild complaint, though. Another mild complaint is the fact that the second story in this collection, “A Girl and Her Hammer”, repeats the same beats as the first story “Boxer in a Tutu”. In both cases Maggie Lou wants to do something (box/work the construction site), is allowed to do so, goes and finds that it’s not what she expected, does a ton of dirty work and chores, and then finally is allowed to get what she wants because she put the work in. It’s a fun sequence, but the second time I saw it I was a bit baffled. Hadn’t we just done this story before? It’s just as satisfying the second time as the first, but it’s still surprising.
And I love how the book can surprise you at any moment. You expect it to follow the same standard beats as other stories, but then it skews off entirely. For example, when Maggie Lou’s mother realizes that her father has offered to teach her daughter to box, she’s furious. Why? “All my life I asked that man to teach me to box. But he refused to show me how to throw a decent punch!” That is not the reaction you get in a lot of books from moms. Later you have Jayda watching her cousin carrying a load of lumber, to which she says, “Keep repping the double X, Maggie.” The dialogue is just as fun as any other part of the writing, and keeps you entirely hooked on this family. Familiar messiness and all.
Author Arnolda Dufour Bowes is a Metis writer with family ties to Sakitawak and George Gordon First Nation. Meanwhile illustrator Karlene Harvey is Tsilhqot’in and Syilx and grew up on territories of the Semaihmoo and Kwantlen Nations. Now when I read, Maggie Lou, Firefox I was also reading at the same time “We Still Belong” by Christine Day. Both books are middle grade novels featuring Indigenous heroines, but the Day book leans hard into its heroine’s heritage. Maggie Lou, in contrast, makes it an integral part of Maggie’s life and family but it’s a subtler offering. When it comes up, you don’t feel like the author is bopping you over the head with information that you need to learn. For example, at one point in the gym a kid calls Maggie Lou a frog. “I don’t understand the frog reference, but I know it’s an insult to my French heritage.” This book is, as you may remember, set in Canada. But it comes up other ways as well. In Maggie’s true name. In the number of Indigenous slang and Northern Michif words in the text. In her Author’s Note at the end, Bowes says that, “Maggie Lou is a vivid picture of some of my experiences growing up as a young girl in a colorful Metis family in Saskatchewan.” Boy, does that come through.
For kids, everything is new at first. So when I complain that so many middle grade novels just sort of blur together in my brain, that’s a me problem. It’s not a them problem, because for a lot of them whatever it is that they’re reading is going to be utterly original. Even so, they deserve our best books, these kids. They deserve books that are funny, show experiences that are authentic, and that get a little messy sometimes. In this book you’ve got blood and urine and bologna cut into the shape of a deer. You also have a heroine that shines with a sheer tenacity that feels utterly authentic. If you know a kid that needs a pick-me-up, something that fun and funny, but also realistic, and not too long, Maggie Lou has your number. Aw, heck. I’ll say it. This is for the kids that liked Ramona and want a variation on the theme. You see? Even I’m not exempt from the comparison! Except let’s all remember that when it comes to Maggie Lou, Firefox there is NOTHING out there like this book. A true original.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network