Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress

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Discussion Guide

Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress

Written by Maria Padian

Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers

Book Summary (from the Random House catalog)

Brett McCarthy lives for soccer, vocabulary words, and her larger-than-life grandmother, Nonna. Unfortunately, Brett’s got a huge mouth she can’t seem to tame and opinions she can’t keep to herself. It’s thanks in part to both of those things (and, really, the evil Jeanne Anne) that Brett finds herself going from good student and BFF to Diane, to twice-suspended, friendless, and lunching with the principal every day. Indefinitely.

So when Nonna starts going for lots of medical tests and no one will tell her why, Brett’s already turned-upside down world goes from bad to worse, and she’s not sure where she fits, who she is, or how to make right what she, and her big fat mouth, have made wrong.
Maria Padian makes her literary debut with a laugh-out-loud coming-of-age novel about one smart-mouthed 14-year old who’s learning the hard way that she is a work in progress.
Themes: friendship, family relationships, change, and loss.
Using this guide: This guide is divided into five parts: suggested text openers/prereading questions; vocabulary extensions; thematically arranged discussion questions; connections to the curriculum; web resources.

1.Text Opener/Pre-reading questions

Answering pre-reading questions shows students that their own experiences can help them better understand a story. It prepares them to think about the text in a thoughtful way. It prepares them to consider the themes they will encounter in the book.

What clues does the cover give you about this story? Based on the cover, what sort of girl do you imagine Brett McCarthy is?
What does the term “work in progress” mean to you? How might that relate to a person?
Is being a “work in progress” a good thing for a person to be? A bad thing?
Do you think you’re a work in progress? Do you know someone who is?
What are the qualities that make someone a “best friend?”
Have you ever lost a friend? Why?
Do you have someone in your life that you can really talk to honestly?
Have you ever completely changed your mind about another person?
2. Interpreting Words.

Each chapter of this novel begins with one of Brett’s vocabulary words. Throughout the book she self-consciously uses a lot of big words to make sense of herself, her world and her problems. By exploring the various definitions of these words, students can see how specific language contributes to understanding the meaning of a story. It can also teach them strategies for thinking about definitions in context.

Imagine that you can look yourself up in the dictionary. What is your definition?
Do you think the way you define yourself is the way others would define you? How might those definitions be similar? How might they be different? Why might your definition change depending on who is doing the “defining?”
For each vocabulary word in Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, look up the “real” dictionary definition, and compare it to Brett’s definition. Do they match? Do you always agree with her definition of a word? Are there definitions Brett has missed?
Use the vocabulary words to describe your own experiences. For example: Describe someone you know who is a “mensch.” Can you recall an “unprecedented” incident in your life? Have you ever felt “antipathy” for someone?
Use the vocabulary words in sentences. Have fun with it … make us laugh!

3. General Discussion.

The following questions, arranged thematically, include both interpretive and evaluative elements. Interpretive questions encourage students to draw conclusions based on evidence from the text; evaluative questions encourage students to share their opinions and make connections between the story and their own experiences.

Among her friends, Brett calls Diane her best. Why are they best friends? Do you think you define a best friend the same way Brett does?
Why does Jeanne Anne make Brett so mad? Is there a “Jeanne Anne” in your life? Why can it be challenging to welcome new friends to an existing group?
Why does Brett punch Jeanne Anne? Have you ever gotten so mad that you hit someone? Why might someone lose control?
Describe Brett’s friendship with Michael. How is it different from her friendship with Diane? Do you have a really close friend of the opposite sex? How might it be difficult to have a close friend of the opposite sex? How might it be easy?
Describe Mr. Beady. Why does Brett find him so annoying? Why do you think he and Nonna are such good friends?
If Diane and Brett are best friends, why do they stop talking to each other, even though they realize that each is struggling with big family issues?
Family Relationships
Brett describes the Pelletier’s house as a “work in progress.” Using details from

Chapters 1-4, describe Diane’s family. Does your home reveal anything about you? How would you define a happy family?

Describe where Nonna lives. What does it suggest about her? Would you like to live in the Gnome Home? On the island?
After the prank, Brett has two conversations: one with her mother, one with Nonna. Compare these conversations. What do they tell you about the relationship Brett has with each? Why do you think children sometimes have difficulty talking with their parents?
Describe the ways Brett’s father “talks.” What does that tell you about him? Do you think the McCarthys are good communicators, or not?

Secrets play a big part in the early chapters of this novel. Name some of the secrets. Are there things in your life you don’t speak about openly? What are some reasons why people keep things hidden?

Using details from the bazooka birthday what do we learn about who Eileen McCarthy is and what defines her? Do your friends and interests and the choices you make accurately define you?
Brett opens her story by telling us she wants to pinpoint the exact moment when she got “redefined.” What does she mean? Have you ever experienced a “redefinition?” What might cause such big changes in the way a person sees herself, or the way others see her?
After her second suspension, Brett tells her father that soccer defines her. He responds: “Well, that’s a problem, isn’t it?” Why would her father think this is a problem? Do you agree that it is a problem?
Over the course of the novel Brett changes her mind about a number of people. Give specific examples of characters and how they are “redefined” in Brett’s eyes. What prompts Brett to see things differently? Are these people changing … or is she?
Describe the changes in Nonna in the second half of the book. What hasn't changed about her? How does she advise Brett to handle change?
Describe the ways in which Brett is “redefined” by the end of the book.
In the beginning of the book Brett is primarily concerned about her problems with her friends. As the book progresses, Nonna’s illness is her primary preoccupation. Describe the ways in which the McCarthy’s have had to adjust to illness in their family. Have you and your family ever had to cope with the illness or loss of a loved one? Did family members handle their feelings in different ways?
Nonna tells Brett she wants to die the way she’s lived. How do you think Nonna has lived? What do you think she has in mind for her final days?
Name some things Brett loses over the course of the novel. Name some things she gains.

Does Nonna die the way she lived? What do you think of the choices Nonna made near the end of her life?

Connecting to the Curriculum
Science: Have your science class build a potato bazooka! See website links below for easy instructions.
Social Studies: Be a History Dude! Have students create a timeline of the history of lighthouses, from the earliest recorded lighthouse in Alexandria, Egypt, to present day laser technology. Have them include concurrent historical events on their timeline.
Art: Build fairy houses! Using only glue and natural materials gathered from outdoors, students can build and design enchanting little houses just like the ones visitors construct throughout the woods of Monhegan Island, Maine. This activity can be done entirely outdoors, or, using a piece of plywood as a base, students can construct “portable” fairy houses. See website links below for photos and ideas.

Author’s website:

Links to Publisher:
Instructions for Potato Bazookas:

Fairy Houses: (this site provides pictures of Monhegan Island fairy houses)

About the Author

Maria Padian has worked as a news reporter, an essayist for public radio, a press secretary for a U.S. congressman, and a freelance writer. An avid tennis player, gardener, skier, and hiker, she is also the mother of two teenagers. A graduate of Middlebury College and the University of Virginia, she has attended Oxford University and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She lives with her children, her husband, and their Australian Shepherd in Maine, where she is at work on a new novel.

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