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Book Review: The Fire, The Water, + Maudie McGinn (autism)

Reviewed by Meg Eden Kuyatt

The Fire, the Water, and Maudie McGinn is a new contemporary novel by award-winning author Sally J. Pla of The Someday Birds, and is a must-read for fans of Leslie Connor and Ali Standish.

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. When a wildfire strikes, Maudie and her dad are forced to evacuate to the beach town where he grew up. It is 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 her dad—before summer is over?


“When dogs or people tell you no, I think you just have to respect that…He tried it for us. He gave it a shot. He was a good sport. And he’s rejected it. So, I think we have to listen...”

As an autistic person, I absolutely relate so much to the protagonist Maudie, who feels that she’s “churning in waves of too-muchness.” Her insecurities in how society negatively sees her as an autistic person were so specific, authentic, and ones I haven’t often seen portrayed in media.

There’s a specific scene with her joking to a security guard with a “not the droids you’re looking for” Star Wars reference that’s misinterpreted and unappreciated, and I felt that in the deepest part of my being. How many times have I quoted something, seeing the connections with the moment in my brain, only for others on the outside to see it—and in turn, me—as strange?

Maudie describes herself as “a girl with glitches,” who can’t always process things right away—another autistic trait that I relate to, but always thought was just me. Her misbelief that she needs to be clay to please others is painfully real: “If you’re clay, you can mold and adapt to the new. And that’s what I always do. Mold myself into this or that kind of kid. Adapt. At school, or for Mom, for Mrs. Jills, for Ron, for the other kids at school . . . I try hard to be the right kind of Maudie for each situation, for each thing.”

Maudie thinks little of herself, having constantly been told by her mother and stepdad how incapable, challenged and “broken” she is, shaming her for her autistic mannerisms. This was so painful to read, but so realistic to how many autistic folks are treated, and I really appreciated that the author Pla didn’t hold back. The story shows how awful and traumatizing ABA therapy is, and how even well-meaning “Autism Moms” can cause more damage than good, trying to make their neurodivergent child conform to neurotypical expectations and not listening to or trying to understand their needs.

The example with her mom’s “autism awareness” sob story video on how difficult it is to be an Autism Mom with a “not normal child” was way too real. With so many awful, problematic books out there by “Autism Moms” trying to write from (and misappropriate) their autistic kid’s perspective, I really appreciated how refreshing it was to see the opposite: an autistic kid pointing out how painful these inconsiderate and not-understanding parents can be.

I also love that there’s hope at the end, where the mom seems to become aware of the damage she’s caused, and seeks to change, as well as dimensionality to the mom, where we can see that she upholds “normal” standards as a sort of survival technique, probably in response to her own trauma. I would LOVE to see more critiques of ABA and problematic Autism Moms in kidlit!

While Maudie’s mom and stepdad are varying levels of Absolute Awful, her biological dad is incredibly supportive and suggested to also be neurodivergent, which was so lovely and wholesome to see. Her relationship with Etta as a surfer-mentor was also super sweet and wholesome. Seeing someone stand up for her despite the Bystander Effect was such a powerful, encouraging model of how we can stand up for others that we see in troubling situations.

The novel is in this unique hybrid form of prose and verse. At first, the hybrid format was jarring to me, but with time I ended up appreciating the effect of switching between the two, and I think this is the first time I’ve seen this form in a novel. The chapters are short and function like prose-poems, making it easy to keep turning the pages.

Maudie is a protagonist you can’t help but love, and want to cheer on to succeed. I appreciate the nuance to this story, that it does a great job of showing what’s awful while also modeling good responses, and distinguishing things like “tough discipline” versus abuse, and hitting a limit versus not trying something new and hard. This is a fantastic book about “learning to explore [your] strengths” instead of being made to “feel bad about [your] weaknesses.” An absolutely wonderful, important book for kids that don’t have a voice and may not be able to identify abuse or know how to talk about it.

Fantastic for autistic and allistic readers alike.

Thank you to HarperCollins for sending me an eARC of this novel through NetGalley. The Fire, The Water and Maudie McGinn comes out July 11th. Make sure to check this book out at Goodreads, or preorder on Amazon or Bookshop.


NOTE: This article originally appeared on June 11, 2023, in The Thinking Person's Guide To Autism. Reprinted with permission.


Meg Eden Kuyatt is a 2020 Pitch Wars mentee, and teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She is the author of the 2021 Towson Prize for Literature winning poetry collection “Drowning in the Floating World” (Press 53, 2020) and children’s novels, most recently “Good Different” (Scholastic, 2023). Find her online at or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal and Instagram at @meden_author.


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