Posts Tagged neurodiversity

Author Spotlight: Sally J. Pla

For those of you who are regular Mixed-Up Files readers, you know that I LOVE to do author interviews. So, you can only imagine how thrilled I was to have the good fortune to chat with one of my favorite authors—and favorite author friendsSally J. Pla!

Sally, who wrote the best-selling MG novels The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, is also the author of a picture book, Benji, the Bad Day, and Me. Her latest MG novel, The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn, is out tomorrow, July 11, from Quill Tree Books.

A  Summary of Maudie McGinn

Neurodivergent 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?

Interview with Sally J. Pla

MR: Sally! I’m jumping up and down with excitement to welcome you to the Mixed-Up Files. Thanks for stopping by, my friend!

SJP: I’m jumping up and down with excitement to be here! I love Mixed-Up Files! And you!

MR: First, you already know how much I loved The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn. I laughed, I cried, and I rooted for Maudie from beginning to end. What was the inspiration behind this wonderful book?

SJP: Thank you so much for those kind words! In terms of inspiration, I guess you could say that for this book, the setting was the first character. Maudie’s story is set in an RV campground by the beach, in a fictional town in San Diego County. I live in this county, not too far from the beach, and there’s an actual RV campground that I often meander through during beach walks.

Something about the place is so appealing. Lawn chairs pulled up to fire pits, folks chatting, kids whizzing around on skateboards, surfers making their way up and down the cliff steps with their boards. The supply store, the rangers’ office, the snack bar—it’s a whole little world. So, as I walked, I started to weave a narrative in my head about a young girl who lived in a fictionalized beachside campground. What would be her story? And what could have brought her there?

All About Maudie

MR: The protagonist Maudie, who is autodivergent, is a kind, lovable, and highly relatable character. How were you like Maudie as a child? How were you different?

SJP: Maudie has many of my childhood behaviors, quirks, and challenges. She dislikes change. She has shy attacks– i.e., going mute when overwhelmed, just as I did. She loves simple, comfortable clothing. She is incredibly empathetic, caring, and sensitive. Nothing about her is too girly or precious. Maudie is willing to be brave, though, and she wants to delve into life; to join in, to try new things. These are all ways we are similar.

As for differences: Maudie’s mom and dad were struggling teen parents who split, and now she has a difficult stepdad situation. This is not my family history. Although, like Maudie, I did experience emotional and physical abuse in my formative years.

The Future is Female

MR: As a follow-up, Maudie McGinn is your first MG novel to feature a female protagonist. What made you decide to switch it up?

SJP: I have three boys. Between them and all their friends hanging out, I used to joke that the testosterone in my house was giving me facial hair! Because I lived in boy-world for a long time, it naturally filtered into my writing choices. But now they are grown, I am turning to my own personal stories and experiences. It’s time to write for GIRLS.

Autistic girls are diagnosed at a rate four times less than boys. They fly under the radar, because their behaviors can be more subtle. Part of why I write is that I want to shine a spotlight on this.

Poisonous Secrets

MR: An important theme in the novel is secret keeping, when Maudie’s mom makes Maudie promise not to tell anyone about the abuse she’s suffering at the hands of her stepfather, Ron. What were you trying to say about secret keeping—and secrets in general?

SJP: That sometimes, secrets are poison. They corrode your sense of self, your self-esteem. Certain secrets are intricately connected to shame. And you can’t really heal yourself from the damage they do, until you find the power within yourself to show them the sunlight. Speak them aloud. I feel so strongly that we need to learn to air certain secrets, if we ever plan to heal from them.

Maudie’s mother puts Maudie in a dire situation by making her promise to keep her new stepdad’s anger attacks upon Maudie a secret. It compounds the abuse. And Maudie has trouble speaking, in general—so how does she find her way through this dilemma?

Fact: Autistic (or otherwise neurodivergent) and disabled children are three times more likely to experience abuse than their normal-presenting peers. Quite frankly, they are more likely to frustrate a caregiver or parent. And they are less likely to be believed or listened to, after the fact.

 Hang Ten

MR: Maudie wants to learn how to surf, so she takes lessons from former pro surfer Etta Kahana. Unless I’m mistaken, Sally, you’re not a surfer yourself. How did you make the surfing scenes so realistic? What kind of research did you do?

SJP: Many of my family members are surfers. And where I live, a lot of it is just in the air. I also have surfing-enthusiast friends—most notably, my pal Janet Berend, lifelong surfer, author, and teacher. She read the whole manuscript for me to check it for surf-accuracy, and I’m forever indebted to her. (Any mistakes are my own!)

I do not surf, but when I was younger, I used to love to windsurf. I still have my old Mistral board. Nowadays, though, all I do is swim. And I deeply enjoy being surrounded by all that beautiful, watery blue.

Literary Leanings

MR: Maudie McGinn is a wonderful hybrid of prose and verse. What made you choose this particular literary form for your novel?

SJP: Maudie has a glitch: She has some auditory processing delays. Auditory processing (listening-understanding-responding within typical speed parameters) is a challenge for some autistic people. It was for me when I was very young.

So, words come to Maudie, and leave her lips, at a halting pace sometimes. Verse is perfect for this. I found myself writing verse for her without even realizing it. Verse format reflects how she sometimes thinks: in slow, considered, spare, fragments.

Path to Publication

MR: What was the path to publication like with Maudie McGinn? To use a surfing analogy, was it a smooth ride or did you wipe out once in a while?

SJP: Ha ha, great analogy! Publishing IS like surfing: a ridiculous and unpredictable combination of skill, timing, and luck. Lord knows, I’ve messed up that combination often enough in the past, but Maudie was more or less of a smooth ride. I wrote it during Covid, so there were big waves of emotion involved. But the writing flowed.

I’m so grateful to be at Quill Tree Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, that raises up underrepresented voices. Quill Tree’s slogan is: “Many branches, many voices,” and I love that.

No World Too Big

MR: You have a poem in the MG poetry anthology, No World Too Big: Young People Fighting Global Climate Change. Can you tell us about this project? How did you get involved, and why?

SJP: I was super honored to be asked to write the poem for Greta Thunberg, as she is one of my absolute heroes! Talk about an autistic girl with courage and grit! It’s such an inspiring anthology, with gorgeous illustrations by Jeanette Bradley. Editors Lindsay Metcalf and Keila Dawson were a joy to work with! And there is no more important issue affecting our next generation—affecting all of us—than climate crisis.

(For more information on the impacts of our changing climate, check out this STEMTuesday interview with author Christy Mihaly.)

Write This Way…

MR: What does your writing routine look like, Sally? Do you have any particular writing rituals?

SJP: I have insomnia, and sometimes do my best work sitting up in bed in the wee hours. That is a HORRIBLE method, however, and I do not recommend it unless you enjoy feeling dopey and groggy all day. Otherwise, I try to be an early bird. Hot tea. Quiet. A comfy armchair. Oh, and ‘Freedom’ blocking software on my laptop, to keep me from wandering away into every rabbit hole in the cyberwilderness.

A Novel Mind

MR: In addition to being an acclaimed children’s book author, you run, a site about mental health and neurodiversity in children’s literature. Can you tell MUF readers a bit about it? What was the impetus behind starting this site?

SJP: Thank you for mentioning A Novel Mind! I cofounded it a few years ago with my friend, neurodivergent author/licensed therapist Merriam Saunders.

It grew out of our many, many complaining conversations, bemoaning how hard it was to find stories with quality, authentic autism/ADHD/disability/mental health representation. The stories that didn’t “other” or “pathologize” the neurodivergent kid, or use them for the purpose of what’s called “inspiration porn.” The stories that just showed neurodivergent or otherwise challenged kids going about their lives naturally, and having adventures, etc. Because these stories help show kids their power. They are great touchstones to classroom conversations. They grow empathy. They heal.

We have well over 1,000 such books in our searchable database now. And there are Educator Resource pages on the site with tons of informative links, curated by amazing autistic librarian Adriana White and myself. There are close to 200 guest posts on our weekly blog, now, written by some of today’s foremost award-winning children’s authors, and educators and other professionals. In sum: it’s a great resource, and a labor of love. I hope Mixed-Up Files readers will check it out!

MR: What are you working on now? Enquiring Mixed-Up Files readers want to know.

SJP: A dual point-of-view Romeo+Juliet retelling, set against the background of a simmering family feud, in a small farming town in the upper Midwest, in the early days of the culture wars. Upper middle-grade!

Lightning Round!

MR: And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Roasted almonds.

Coffee or tea? I love the smell of coffee but sadly can’t drink it! I’m “English Breakfast” all the way!

Cat or dog? Big goofy dogs are my total weakness.

Favorite beach? I grew up on Southport Beach, in Connecticut. It’s the setting of so many memories: big nostalgia! But now I live by, and love, Moonlight Beach, Swami’s, Cardiff Beach, Del Mar dog beach, La Jolla Shores–all my favorite San Diego sandy spots.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? No apocalypses of any kind for me, thank you very much!

Superpower? To not feel sensory overwhelm, fear, or anxiety anymore would be a superpower enough. But if we’re being truly aspirational: SuperWorldPeaceMaker!

Favorite place on earth? The chair in my living room that looks out over a beautiful canyon and soaring hills, and it’s so peaceful, all you hear are birds.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? A deluxe resort! Great friends! Good weather! Ha ha.

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Sally—and congratulations on the publication of The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!

SJP: Thank you so much, Melissa! This is my most personal and heart-felt book yet, and I hope everyone who reads it, falls in love with Maudie a little bit. Then I’ll feel as if I’ve done my job.


Sally J. Pla is the award-winning author of acclaimed middle-grade novels THE SOMEDAY BIRDS and STANLEY WILL PROBABLY BE FINE, and the picture book, BENJI, THE BAD DAY, AND ME. Her books are Junior Library Guild Selections with starred reviews that have appeared on many awards lists and “best books” roundups. Her latest middle-grade novel, THE FIRE, THE WATER, AND MAUDIE McGINN, pubs on July 11, 2023 (Quill Tree/HarperCollins).

Sally has appeared on television and radio as an author and autism advocate, and she runs the website resource A Novel Mind ( Learn more about Sally on her website and  follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Diversity in MG Lit #43 March & April 2023

cover art Indigo and Ida

Diversity in MG Lit

It’s the beginning of May, but March and April were big months for diversity in MG Lit book releases, so I’m going to recap and highlight a few standouts and ask you to mention those I’ve missed in the comments. As usual I’m going to focus on debut authors and diverse representations that most need amplification.
book cover The StorytellerHappy to see a debut MG book from acclaimed Cherokee author Brandon Hobson, The Storyteller. Ziggy is already dealing with anxiety and the disappearance of his mother only makes things worse. In a search for answers about where his mother (and so many other Native women) have gone Ziggy is drawn to a nearby cave and the story tradition of the Cherokee for answers. (Scholastic Press, 4/18/23)
book cover Good DifferentBooks about neurodivergent girls are few and far between. I was thrilled to find Good Different by Meg Eden Kuyatt. Selah is an autistic seventh grader learning to embrace her inner dragon while still taking responsibility for her actions. The novel in verse format gives Selah’s story an engaging pace and emotional power. (Scholastic Press, 3/7/23)
book cover Parchute KidsTwo graphic novels caught my eye this month, both with Asian-American protagonists. Squished by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter is about the second oldest daughter finding some autonomy and space to make her art in a family of seven siblings. A large family is its own culture beyond race and ethnicity. I belong to a big family and found lots of scenes here that resonated. (Graphix 3/7/23) Parachute Kids by Betty C Tang is about being left in America with siblings or relatives while parents remain behind in an Asian country. (Graphix 4/4/23)
book cover BoundlessTwo stories about African-American athletes will appeal to sports fans. Colin Kaepernick Change the Game by Eve L Ewing and Orlando Caicedo is a graphic novel (Graphix 3/7/23). Track and field fans will devour the story of national champion, world champion, and four time Olympian, Chanunté Lowe in her debut MG biography Boundless. (Scholastic focus 3/7/23)
book cover Once There Wasbook cover The Scroll of ChaosAnd finally there are four notable additions to the genre of MG protagonist meets magical creatures and discovers hidden powers. They are Once There Was by Kiyash Monsef (S&S 4/423), Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind (Labyrinth Road RH 4/4/23), Hamara and the Jungle of Memories by Hanna Alkaf (HC 3/28/23), and The Scroll of Chaos by Elie Chapman (Scholastic Press 3/7/23)
As always this is only a small sample of the diverse books published in March and April. If I’ve missed something, do mention it in the comments.

Dealing with Mental Health Issues in Middle Grade Literature

Mental Health in Middle Grade Literature

Mental Health in Middle Grade Literature

(EDITED TO ADD: Responsibility in these kinds of topics is of the utmost importance. There are many books that do NOT handle issues like these appropriately–and some that increase stigmas rather than assuage them–so please make certain that books are informed whenever they assert any kind of mental illness. Familiarize yourself with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, build relationships with professionals, and be careful that books you recommend are supportive and empowering rather than detrimental. 

It is important to represent these children in the fiction they read, but it is essential that they be represented well.)

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mental health and neurodivergence in children’s literature.

As a bit of background, I’ve worked with teens and tweens in various capacities for most of my adult life, providing mentorship and guidance to kids from all sorts of backgrounds. And I’ve seen all types; enough to know that neurodiversity—that idea that everyone’s brain works differently—is the order of the day. Every child is different.

But in those differences, I’ve also seen a lot of hurt. Social structures come easy for some kids, but not for others. Some excel at math, while others look at numbers and see Greek. Many, many struggle with deep insecurities when they see the difference between themselves and those kids who are celebrated by the culture at large. And sometimes those differences in cognitive function provide enough pain and disruption to a kid’s life that they leave any sense of normalcy behind.

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand (image by Sean Easley)

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand (image by Sean Easley)

That’s a painful place to be. Students who find themselves on the margins of what we call “mental health” often experience an overwhelming sense of confusion and sadness as a result. They feel lost, adrift, and often, alone.

It’s part of our nature, I think, to believe that when hard times come, we are the only ones facing them. And when a child’s daily experience consists of a consistent string of hard times and marginalization—of any type—that sense of loneliness and hopelessness can grow even greater. As those feelings grow, so too does the gulf that these kids experience between them and the world at large.

This isn’t just something to only consider once a kid gets older and their “brain has developed,” as some might say. Statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness say that half of all mental health conditions begin by the time a child turns fourteen. Half. That means half of all people with these mental health issues are first experiencing these issues when they are readers of middle grade literature.

And yet, when I start seeking out books for this age group that feature these kinds of kids, the pickings are often slim. This is the time in these kids’ lives when they’re discovering what their life is going to be like—what they are going to be like—and they (and the adults in their lives) have to work hard to find examples of other kids coping with these experiences.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling (image by Sean Easley)

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling (image by Sean Easley)

I’ve overheard parents say that they don’t want their kids reading “books like that,”—referring to those books that address mental health issues—because they don’t want their kids “exposed to that sort of thing.” This is exactly the problem, though. The kids whose parents want to shelter them from neurodiversity and neurodivergence often end up with distorted understanding of kids in their own schools who experience life differently from them. And a child who’s experiencing these feelings of differentness and otherness needs to know that their experience isn’t something to just discount. Their life has infinite value, even if they don’t realize or believe it yet.

That’s where the educators, librarians, and authors of middle grade come in. It’s our responsibility to give these kids access to books they can see themselves and learn that they fit in the world, just like anyone else. They need to know that it’s okay to claim a spot on the map and make it their own.

And I have been grateful to find more books and authors doing this lately. Books like the Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look and Kenneth Oppel’s psychological horror The Nest give us a look at kids exhibiting some OCD tendencies. Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus centers on a girl with physical challenges, but her close friend deals with his Tourette’s throughout the book in a very positive way. Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs, and Claire Legrand’s Some Kind of Happiness all give heartfelt portrayals of depression. Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin provides a deep rendition of a boy dealing with bipolar disorder. And Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy puts a beautiful fantasy twist on neurodiversity.

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (image by Sean Easley)

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (image by Sean Easley)

These are still only the tip of the iceberg. It’s important that kids with cognitive differences be normalized because—in reality—the existence of these kinds of differences IS normal. These kids are all around us. They are us. Librarians and teachers know how common those differences are, and often do a wonderful job of celebrating those books that will reach these kids where they’re at. And putting those books in the hands of kids who don’t have those cognitive “differences” will go a long way to building compassion, understanding, and acceptance of kids who feel unloved, confused, and unaccepted.

What books have you loved or recommended because they gave honest, normalizing portrayals of neurodivergence? Add your suggestions in the comments below!