Sally J. Pla's newest title, The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn, features a main character with autism who is learning to cope with major life changes, family secrets, and finding her own voice. Read on to hear from Sally as she shares how Maudie's journey mirrors her own and the importance of self-advocacy.
When I was a kid, I kept to myself a lot. I lived inside my head, where it was safe, because the world was so quizzical, so confusing!
I couldn’t figure out the rules of behavior. How did the other kids automatically know where to line up for recess, how to purchase a hot lunch? And I never knew what the heck people were talking about. I was constantly confounded by ambiguities in language other people found straightforward.
For instance, when my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Field, once told me: “I’ll need you to stay after for a make-up lesson.”
Here’s where my brain went:
“Is she going to teach me how to apply cosmetics? I’m only eight! Is she going to teach me how to make up with someone because of my fight with my brother? Or will I be ‘making’ something that will float ‘up’? And by the way: Stay after? After what? After school or after recess or after lunch--?”
(“Sally? Pay attention!” said Mrs. Field!)
Peace and quiet helped my brain think better. And I loved order and orderliness. While the other girls sat in a circle and made their Barbies go through all kinds of inexplicable romance-dramas, I’d sit apart, calmly arranging plastic shoes by color and style and humming to myself.
Another thing about me as a kid: I had a passionate sense of justice, and a deep, deep heart that wanted—needed—everything to be all right in the world. I hated conflict. I desperately wanted everyone to be kind to each other, all the time.
Of course, this wasn’t the case. I had parents that loved me, but didn’t understand my sensitivity and odd behaviors and we clashed. I especially clashed with my dad and there were lots and lots of tears. My parents didn’t know anything about neurodivergence—that word didn’t even exist when I was young and autism back then referred only to the extremely severe, rare cases. There was no notion of any spectrum.
There was a lot of misunderstanding.
In The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn, Maudie is a very sweet, sensitive autistic girl who has certain social and sensory issues of her own—issues very similar to mine when I was young (even though this is a completely fictional, made-up story with made-up people). It is the story of one autistic girl’s profound journey to safety, acceptance, and self-worth over the course of a crucible summer spent by the ocean.
She has temporarily escaped a troubling situation with her mom and stepdad and is relieved to be spending summer with her loving father. But a wildfire upends things, and they move to a trailer by the ocean.
Instead of despair at this turn of events, she eventually finds joy, a loving new community, and a welcome safe harbor. She learns to surf. She finds her own resilience and discovers her own amazing strengths.
Maudie has a mother who exposes Maudie in autism-related social media posts – to Maudie’s great discomfort. She also has a new stepdad who gets so confused and frustrated by her behaviors, his anger sometimes gets out of control. He gets verbally and sometimes even physically abusive with Maudie, and her self-esteem and confidence plunges. While difficult, these scenes are told in flashback and with extreme sensitivity to the maturity level of middle-grade readers.
But they were very important scenes for me to include. In the US today, emotional and/or physical abuse happens between four and ten times more often (depending on the study) to kids with disabilities and/or neurodivergence. Especially for this vulnerable subset of children, it can be very hard to know when or how to speak up, or to whom. I didn’t, during certain times in my life when I experienced abuse. And it was very important for me to tell a story of a girl who learns to stand up for herself. Learns she can trust the safe people in her life. That she has every right to self-advocate, and to TELL.
But Maudie’s story is not about this as much as it’s about moving on from this. It’s about how you can go on to bloom, even if life has scorched the ground out from under you. Maybe especially if.
It’s about finding your voice and coming into your power. About friends, community, love, healing, and wisdom. About learning to navigate the turbulent waves of change that life brings us all.
As Maudie well learns, none of us can stop life’s waves of change.
But we can learn to ride them.
We can learn to surf.
About the Author
Sally J. Pla is the author of the acclaimed novels The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. She has English degrees from Colgate and Penn State and has worked as a business journalist and in public education. She has three sons, a husband, and an enormous fluffy dog and lives near lots of lemon trees in Southern California. You can visit her online at www.sallyjpla.com.
About the Book
Maudie McGinn lives for the summers she spends in California with her dad, but this year, she’s shouldering the weight of a big secret, one that her mom warned her never to tell. As much as Maudie wants to confide in her dad, she’s scared to.
When a wildfire strikes, Maudie and her dad are forced to evacuate his cabin in the woods. They head to the small beach town where her dad grew up. Every morning, from their camper, Maudie can see surfers bobbing in the water. Maudie quickly realizes she wants to learn, but how could she ever be brave or cool enough to surf?
As Maudie navigates unfamiliar waters, she makes new friends, and her autism no longer feels like a big deal. But her secret is still threatening to sink her. Will Maudie be able to reveal the awful truth about life with her mom and stepdad before the summer is over?
Praise for The Fire, the Water, and Maudie McGinn
“A heartfelt story of courage and hope about Maudie, who navigates the world in her own unique divergent way, even while struggling with challenging family dynamics and loss. Readers will cry, cheer, and celebrate, and not soon forget, Maudie McGinn.”