THE FIRE, THE WATER, AND MAUDIE MCGINN, by Sally J. Pla, Quill Tree Books, July 11, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 10 and up)
A neurodivergent teen struggles with a dangerous secret her mom made her promise to keep in The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn, by Sally J. Pla.
Maudie always looks forward to the summers she spends in California with her dad. But this year, she must keep a troubling secret about her home life—one that her mom warned her never to tell. Maudie wants to confide in her dad about her stepdad’s anger, but she’s scared.
When a wildfire strikes, Maudie and her dad are forced to evacuate to the beach town where he grew up. It’s another turbulent wave of change. But now, every morning, from their camper, Maudie can see surfers bobbing in the water. She desperately wants to learn, but could she ever be brave enough?
As Maudie navigates unfamiliar waters, she makes friends—and her autism no longer feels like the big deal her mom makes it out to be. But her secret is still threatening to sink her. Will Maudie find the strength to reveal the awful truth—and maybe even find some way to stay with Dad—before summer is over? —Synopsis provided by Quill Tree Books
The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn is the kind of book that sticks with you. Author Sally J. Pla’s elegant prose draws you in and makes you want to stay. She creates a sense of space that feels warm and familiar. And the parallels between the ocean and Maudie are spot on.
Maudie is the star of this book from beginning to end. And she’s lovely. Told in first person, you get a front-row seat to Maudie’s innermost thoughts and reactions to the world around her. Her sensory and social interactions are immediately understandable and relatable. She may be “different” but those differences make her the wonderful person that she is.
One of the central plot lines in The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn is the way Maudie’s stepfather treats her. It’s not immediately clear what her secret is, but as a parent, alarm bells were going off in my head early on. It turns out that Maudie is being physically abused. Pla addresses this topic with care, and the few descriptions of Maudie being hurt are quick and not gratuitous. But it’s still a hard topic, and it will be slightly jarring for readers. I suggest parents read the book ahead of time or at least be prepared to discuss it with their children.
The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn is one of the best middle-grade novels I’ve read this year. Maudie’s growth and journey toward defining herself rather than letting her autism define her is beautiful. It’s an excellent choice for readers 10 and up. And it’s a good option for parents who want a greater understanding of the diverse group of kids their own children interact with.
About the author: Sally J. Pla writes stories for young people. Her books have been translated into many languages, garnered starred reviews, appeared on many ‘best book’ and state lists, and picked up a few awards, but the best thing they’ve done has been to connect her to readers like you. The Someday Birds, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, Benji, The Bad Day, And Me, and her latest, The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn, all portray characters who see the world a bit differently. Because we are all stars shining with different lights.
Sally has English degrees from Colgate and Penn State, and has worked as a journalist and in public education. You can find her at sallyjpla.com, on Instagram at @sallyjpla, on Facebook at Sally Pla, on Twitter at @sallyjpla and on Threads at @sallyjpla.
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