Author Sally J. Pla recently revealed the cover of her forthcoming middle grade title The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn! Here it is if you missed it.
I was happy to chat with Sally about her new book, writing a female protagonist for the first time, and her love for the beach. Enjoy!
Interview with Sally J. Pla about The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn
Hi Sally, welcome to Reading Middle Grade! Could you tell us a bit about The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn?
Thank you so much, Afoma! This new novel is about Maudie McGinn, who lives most of the year with her mom and stepdad, but travels to spend every summer with her dad in his mountainside cabin. Maudie deeply loves being with Dad. Maudie is autistic. Dad probably is, too. They understand each other.
This summer, Maudie has a secret. It’s a big scary one. But, before she leaves home, Mom makes her promise not to mention it. Mom says, and Maudie believes, “A promise is a promise, and must be kept.”
Maudie’s summer with Dad is thrown into peril when a wildfire forces them to flee. They end up in the small beach community where Dad grew up as a teen, staying in an RV park, thanks to help from an old high school buddy. They have very real struggles as evacuees. But Maudie’s captivated by the ocean and the surfers she sees each morning. She makes some new friends, ventures into new waters. She feels loved and accepted like never before.
But secrets are still burning inside her. Can she trust herself enough to reveal them, before the summer ends?
Sounds so good! It’s been a while since your last middle grade book was published. What was the process like for writing The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn? How is this book different from your other stories so far?
My last middle grade book, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, was published in 2018, so yes, it has been a while! In the meantime, I’ve cofounded and am editor of A Novel Mind, (anovelmind.com), an online resource for mental health and neurodiversity representation in children’s lit. And I’ve worked on several other projects for children and adults.
The pandemic’s isolation, and growing older, has spurred me into some deeper self-reflection these past few years – I think this has been true of a lot of us! I went through a lot of struggle and abuse as a child, teen, and young adult, unfortunately. And my neurodivergences contributed or exacerbated a lot of already-difficult situations.
I’ve been taking a lot of long walks on the beach near our San Diego County home, thinking all this through. Examining and wondering about all the ways trauma has affected my life’s path and why. In my walks, I’d often pass a little RV campground. This morphed and changed into Maudie’s fictional campground community, in the book. And I guess I sort of morphed and changed into fictional Maudie, too.
During those walks and ruminations, while watching the waves crash ashore, I thought about all the waves of change that hit us, and I watched the surfers, and that’s how this story was born.
In the past, you’ve written about male protagonists. What was it like writing about Maudie? What are your favorite things about this character?
I have never had the courage before to write about a character that reflected so much of myself. In the past, I used my experience (the best of my life!) as a mom to my three amazing sons. The culture of boys was such a wonderful and familiar one for me to draw upon. This time, though, I’m digging deeper, and there is a lot more vulnerability attached to this.
My favorite thing about Maudie is how much she loves all the good people in her life. And how she starts to bloom in the water. It becomes almost a special interest. She is not afraid; she dives right in.
I love the title of this book. Was it the first one you landed on?
It was! I’ve agonized over titles before, but this one came in a flash. First one I thought of. And I was so lucky my editor felt it was just right, too.
This is a summer story set on the beach. Would you consider yourself a beach person? If so, what do you love the most about the beach?
I am a beach person. I actually don’t think of this as a summer story, though. Or, not just a summer story. For a while I was calling it “my surfing story,” but, as my editor, the amazing Alexandra Cooper, reminded me recently, that doesn’t quite cover it.
Because it’s really about learning to stand up for yourself. To not just survive the waves of change life throws at you, but to actively navigate them if you can. This is really hard. It means learning to value yourself. And to recognize what you can control. That’s hard for a lot of us – especially young teen girls. There is a great quote by Jon Kabat-Zinn: “You can’t stop the waves. But you can learn to surf.”
How did you feel when you first saw the cover? Would it say it captures the essence of Maudie’s story?
I burst into tears when I saw it. It captures everything, for me – all the sweeping drama. Artist Leo Nickolls and designer Joel Tippie have absolutely knocked it out of the park.
When can readers explore Maudie’s story?
This story comes to shore in June 2023. (June, by the way, is National Oceans Month!)
Thanks to all the lovely people at Quill Tree, an imprint of HarperCollins Childrens Books.
Thanks Sally! I can’t wait for readers to meet Maudie!
About Sally J. Pla
Sally J. Pla is an award-winning children’s author whose books have appeared on many state awards lists and “best books” roundups. THE SOMEDAY BIRDS, a Goodreads Choice Award Finalist, received the 2018 Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award for its depiction of autism/disability, BENJI, THE BAD DAY, & ME received the San Diego Book Award for Best Children’s Book in 2019. STANLEY WILL PROBABLY BE FINE is a Bank Street, Kirkus, and NYPL Best Book of the year. Sally is also an autism and neurodiversity advocate – she believes in the beauty of different brains, and in stories where different kids can see themselves, sometimes for the first time. Visit her anytime at www.sallyjpla.com.