Review of The Fire, the Water, and Maudie McGinn, by Sally J. Pla, read by Gail Shalan

The Fire, the Water, and Maudie McGinn

by Sally J. Pla
read by Gail Shalan

Quill Tree Books, 2023. 6 hours, 36 minutes.
Review written May 20, 2024, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2024 Schneider Family Book Award Winner, Middle Grades

Oh, I love this one! I’m so glad I finally got around to listening to this award winner — the Schneider Family Award is given annually to books with the best portrayal of a disability. Awards are given for three age levels, along with Honor books, and this one won the award for Middle Grades.

The featured character in this book is Maudie McGinn, a 13-year-old girl with autism. She’s supposed to spend the summer with her Dad in his cabin in northern California. But while they are out to dinner, a wildfire sweeps in, and they have to evacuate. They find a place to stay in the coastal town near San Diego where her Dad grew up, so they’re staying in a trailer in a campground on the beach.

But Maudie’s Dad has friends there, and Maudie begins to make friends there — something she didn’t do in Texas, where she lives during the school year with her mother and stepfather. Maudie has two terrible secrets, but everything with Dad and the ocean helps her relax and begin to understand her own value. Her father has many neurodivergent traits, like Maudie, and he never puts her down for them or scolds her for them. The fact that Maudie thinks this is of note makes us wonder about her life with her mother, and plenty of flashbacks round out the picture of how much better and safer she feels with her father.

But the ocean helps Maudie put all that out of her mind. She even starts learning to surf! And she decides to surprise her father by entering the beginners’ surf competition at the town’s big end-of-summer Surf Bash. Yes, I know that might sound unrealistic in a book summary, but it builds gradually, and yes, we’re with Maudie all the way. (Though as the reader, I did have reservations about her idea of surprising her Dad.)

Maudie’s neurodivergence is sensitively and beautifully portrayed from the inside. And the flashbacks about how her mother responds to her are viscerally painful. The narrator does a wonderful job with the audiobook, giving each person a voice that fits how they’re described in words.

The ending feels almost a little too tidy — but goodness, I would have been so angry if Maudie didn’t have happy times ahead to look forward to. And it wasn’t *every* single thing that worked out for them. I fell in love with this kid while I listened to her story, and I love how she learned that keeping secrets isn’t the road to happiness.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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