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Children's book author focuses on telling stories of neurodivergent kids

 June 6, 2023 at 11:40 AM PDT

S1: You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman. A girl flies to California to spend the summer with her father. But a wildfire upends her family's plans , leading them to a campground along the southern California coast. That's the plot of the book The Fire , the Water and Morty McGuinn. It's a coming of age story centered around Morty , who's trying to navigate waves of change all while seeing and processing the world through the autism spectrum. I'm joined now by the book's author , Sarah J. Plath. She is a San Diego children's book , author of several books featuring Neurodivergent characters and an advocate for autism acceptance. Sally , it is great to have you here on Midday Edition.

S2: Oh , thank you so much for having me.


S2: You know , I was a business writer. I worked at a business magazine , a freelance. But in the back of my mind , I knew after having my three boys in the 1990s and early 2000 that I wanted to write fiction about family and about family dynamics and about kids. And I had an autistic son , actually , all three of my kids , actually , our whole family is pretty much Neurodivergent And is there awareness about this group and just , you know , working through the nuances and the challenges and navigating it with our family , I knew that that's where my heart was at with writing. I really wanted to write books for kids and devote myself to that so that they would feel seen on the page. Realizing how hard it was having kids early where , you know , back in the 1990s , it wasn't as much as of a well known thing to be autistic as it is today. And just to see how othered they occasionally felt and to deal with that really resolved me to it's my mission now to try to populate the world with as many neurodivergent characters and children's literature as I can.

S1: Yeah , that is wonderful. But you know , neurodiversity is such a broad term.

S2: Essentially , it means any , you know , people whose neurodiversity itself means the wide spectrum of different kinds of brains that we all have from what's considered just the more normally functioning brains do , brains that may be autistic or have ADHD or OCD anxiety , even dyslexia , dyspraxia. There are many different ways that our brains can vary from the norm. And the term neurodiversity is meant to welcome all of those different kinds of brains under the one same umbrella and realize we are all human. This diversity is natural among us.

S1: All right. And tell us about your newest work , The Fire , the Water and Morty McGinn.

S2: Oh , yeah. Well , it's a very , very San Diego book. I live in Encinitas , and we often love to walk by Cardiff State Beach , just along there. You know , take that walk along the beach. It's so beautiful. We bless ourselves to be so lucky to live here every time we walk. And sometimes we'll cut through the state campground there and you know , it just my mind , it just got my mind thinking , seeing the , you know , little , little signs of the community , you know , in the RV trailers there and how people talk and laugh with each other. And to see the surfers out on the water and feel that longing in me as an old , unathletic person that wishes she could get out in the water and be a surfer , I always look at them and think , Oh gosh , that must be amazing to be able to do that. I'm like so filled with admiration for people that have the ability to to be so graceful out there in the waves and just walking through and seeing that on our daily walks made the idea come in my head , Well , what if that was the setting of a novel , a community , and how community can really save us. I think we're at a time where we're so split and full of strife these days. But isn't it all down to community ? And I wanted to write a book about a girl that really needs community and finds it in a place like that. And I had also been reading a lot of mindfulness. And there's a wonderful quote by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He says , You can't stop the waves of change in your life , but you can learn to surf. And I just thought , that is just that's perfect. That's just what I want to get across , is just that sense of resiliency and learning how to deal with all those tumultuous waves of change and how that feels when you're an autistic girl. You know , 13 that coming of age , age , you know , when everything is changing around you to realize that you have resilience and strength and that those are the things that that the story really gets at. Right.

S1: Right. And this book opens with Morty remembering a trick she learned from a teacher to help calm herself. Can you set the scene for us and talk about this advice Morty gets here ? Yes.

S2: Marie , of course , is anxious and anxiety goes along with the sensory , hypersensitive issues that can affect many autistic kids. So she's at a school dance and she's very anxious. And her teacher says to her , Maddy , you're in sensory overload. Sit down. Just take this piece of paper and I want you to think about and write five things you're you're feeling or seeing , you know , for things that you're feeling , three things that you are hearing , you know , And it just sort of calms her down as she's writing down her observations about the world , she's able to process them a little bit. It's just a little anxiety trick that he helps her with.

S3: Mm hmm.

S1: And is that you know , I'm curious. You put that in your book.

S2: I have generalized anxiety disorder and everything in the book to I , you know , has therapists. I have a really good friend who's a family therapist that works with kids with ADHD and anxiety , who helped me with a lot of this and just my own experiences in a lifetime of therapy. So , yes , that all totally informs Maddie's situation in dealing with a lot of these issues. Um , yeah , she uses that trick. She's recalling that trick actually in a flashback because she's not in that school gymnasium. As the book starts , she's just remembering it where she is actually is in an emergency shelter up north. She and her dad have just been evacuated because of a wildfire threat for their mountainside cabin. And as the book starts , she and dad , who is very gentle , very kind , good dad is but a little bit having trouble navigating the world himself. And they realize they're going to have to abandon all their plans for their summer together and find an alternative. And that's what brings them down to Southern California , to an RV camp that is fictional. But it's based a little bit on that card of our camp that I usually walk through , but it's totally fictional.

S3: All right.

S1: You know , I'm wondering if you can read a few lines from the book.

S2: Oh , I'd be so happy to. This is a little selection that's not far from the beginning. And it's about how Maddie is keeping a secret about what her life is like with her mom and her stepdad , which is a very dysfunctional life. And she's been warned by her mom not to mention it to her dad. So she's talking about this and she says. If I've never talked much as a rule. But this past year , I've really gone silent. See , I have this secret I'm supposed to keep now , and it feels like I've swallowed a burning lump. And I'm trying to keep it locked away , like behind a tiny door in my chest. When I speak , sometimes I can feel the door rattling. I know I need to someday get to the point where I can talk about the things that are too hard to think about. Even though I've kind of promised not to. If that makes any sense. Hmm.

S3: Hmm. You know , can.

S1: You tell us more about your main character , Marty McGinn , I mean , and how she sees the world and processes the things around her ? Yeah.

S2: Mahdi is as hypersensitive sensory avoider kind of autistic kid. There are many different kinds of autistic kids that just really run the gamut of all kinds of different attributes and symptoms and syndromes. And but Mahdi tends to be just very gentle , very kind , very thoughtful , very nervous of doing the wrong thing. And she had , you know , anxiety really , really affects her. I think she she has a sense of her loss. And that's true a lot with autistic girls. They they are more aware of their lack or their loss or their social challenges than boys are. And oftentimes they do have a lot of anxiety like Mahdi does. Compounded with her problem is during the school year and most of the year , she's spending with her mom , who she's always had a kind of struggling relationship with her. Her mom likes to use Maddie's autism on social media , as , you know , something that she can talk about on social media to get more followers. And this makes Mahdi cringe and feel embarrassed and feel a bit exploited , quite frankly. And now her mom has married a stepfather who is very frustrated with Maddie's behaviors and doesn't quite understand them. Because Mahdi has stims. Mahdi forgets directions sometimes if things are told to her ordinarily and not written down , she tends to forget them. These are symptoms that were in my family that I know well the challenges of and I gave them to Mahdi. And all these calls are a lot of problems with a stepfather who cannot control his anger at her and a mom who is not standing up for her. So she's having a very , very difficult time with her home life there. And that's the that has a lot to do with the secrets that she's you know , she she doesn't feel like she could talk about that with her dad when she goes for the summer to spend with him. And now , of course , dad has all kinds of other worries with the you know , with a losing the cabin and trying to find new work and living in a trailer that one of his high school buddies has given to them for the summer. And Mahdi is blossoming in a lot of ways in this new changing life. But it's also very challenging. Yeah.

S1: And you know , you've described this book as the most autobiographical work of yours to date. You mentioned that your family , pretty much everyone has some degree of autism. Talk a bit more about that and why you say this is the most autobiographical work of yours.

S2: Yeah , I have two other middle grade novels or novels for people ten and up. Sometimes I think grandparents love my novels just as much as kids , but the first one is the Someday Birds , which is about a boy named Charlie and a cross-country trip that he's forced to make. He's autistic as well. The second book is called Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. It's also set here in San Diego. And it's about Stanley who his all of his friends are ditching him. And he's very anxious and he has a lot of sensory issues and he decides to try to win his best friend back by entering a big treasure hunt about comics trivia all around downtown San Diego and try to win tickets to Comic-Con. So those are my two other books. And they were about boys , and they were based a lot on the interests and experiences and laughter I have had with my three sons. This book , Morty McGinn , she's my first female autistic character , and I feel like she's my child and I feel like she's me. You know , a lot of the things that I contended with growing up are in her. I was also a very much struggling , difficult child that my dad didn't know how to deal with me and we clashed a lot. Um , it was really hard for me , quite frankly. My dad is turning 90 on Friday and I love him and I know he loves me. I know he means well. But it was very difficult. And we've talked honestly about what that was like growing up and how hard that was. It was very hard for me. Yeah.

S3: Yeah.



S2: You know , it wasn't a long conversation , but he admitted just to know that he knew and regretted and had grown on , you know , had grown from that. And to become somebody different. He's a different person now without the work stresses and all of the stresses that impacted his behavior when I was young. But it's damaging , you know , that's really damaging. And I wanted to write about that. And , you know , we there's rates of abuse. For kids that have disabilities. Studies place those rates of abuse at 410 times higher than for kids that don't have any sort of disability , mental or physical. So for kids that frustrate their parents , this is far too often a reality. And I wanted to I wanted to address that.

S3: Yeah , That's why.

S1: You know , you're writing is so important in raising awareness about this is important , too. And you're also part of an online community called a Novel Mind. It's a it's an online space for children's literature and neurodiversity. Tell me about that.

S2: Yes , I created a novel mind along with my friend and colleague , Miriam Saunders , about four years ago now. And it's grown to be this huge site. It's a resource for mental health and neurodiversity representation in children's literature. We have a database with over 1000 books that you can search by issue or type of book. So say you wanted to find a book about eating disorders for pre-teens. You could enter those search parameters and it will spit you out a list. Or if you wanted to find a book about ADHD for preschoolers , a picture , books , you know , you could enter that in. Besides the database , we also have a weekly blog where today's foremost children's authors are writing about their own personal issues with mental health or neurodiversity and how that affects their writing and their books. And we also have tons of resource pages that were created by Adriana White , who is an autistic librarian in Texas , and she's created for us really wonderful resource pages for teachers and librarians to use , as well as families and parents. So it's at a novel mind. All the information is there. It's just a labor of love. Great.

S3: Great. And you know.


S2: And I think the answer is yes , even though really it's only been , you know , with six , seven years since I first started , I see a great difference. And I'm really hopeful that we're going to see a lot more representation in the future. And we need all those stories. I mean , the rates of autism since the year 2000 , I think have gone up 178%. And it's kind of good news because it means we're getting better at diagnosing and finding the kids. I don't think it necessarily means that there's any type of epidemic going on there. We're just finding the kids that were struggling before without help and we're giving them the help. But the rates are highest in California , higher than any state in the nation. Autistic kids are. I think it one it 22. So basically go into any classroom in the state of California and there's at least one kid , probably two , if you include ADHD and other types of neurodiversity that are on the spectrum. You know , there's so this is it's just huge. So , you know , if you think 1 in 22 , every single classroom in the country really , you know where are the books. We need a lot more books and a lot more stories for these for these kids to and for everybody so that we realize that this is just part of this great umbrella we're all under. All of our brains are human brains. We're all this is all behavior that we need to respect and accept and be more aware of all and accommodate all the different ways that we learn and grow.


S2: Personally , I don't think there's any. Especially with the past three years we've been through , oh my gosh , aren't we all just hanging on and doing the best we can ? But yeah , yeah , I think we are all just somewhere. I know they say it might diminish the sense of people that really struggle with severe autism to say that we're all , Oh , we're all on a big spectrum. You know , that's often something that's found to be insulting by autistic people because they do struggle. We do struggle with a lot of things. I'm sitting here with my little stim toy in my hand , like desperately rubbing it as we speak so that I can stem off some extra energy and speak coherently to you. I mean , we all have our issues and our little tricks to try to get along in a world that's not quite made up for us. So not to to diminish anybody's struggle , but I don't think that there's such a thing as normal. And I think we all struggle with things. Yeah.

S3: Yeah.

S1: You know.

S2: I understand that this Morty is just is a lot like me. I feel this too. Resilience and courage and strength and hope and community and all those good things are at the end of this book and they are all possible for us. And that's what I want kids to feel or all readers to feel , because it's really not just a kid's book. It's ten and up , but that they feel like that too , that they're not all alone. That we all belong to the same human race. And these feelings are ones that we share.

S1: And on Saturday , June 10th , you'll be appearing at San Diego's Central Library for an event sponsored by the Special Needs Resource Foundation of San Diego. Tell us about that event.

S2: The special Needs Resource Foundation is such a great organization. They basically any any child of any ability is welcome. And what we do is three authors. We're going to each read a little bit from our works. And then there's a craft where there'll be a big craft table where the kids can make a craft based on some theme in our work. And they hold this event every year at the Central Library. So I'm going to be there this year , along with authors Julie Hampton and Chris Barron. And I'm also having a book launch party at Warwick's bookstore on July 10th at 7 p.m. and it's just open to the public. And it would be wonderful to see any friends that might want to come by.

S1: Oh , that's great. Okay. Okay.

S3: Okay.

S1: I've been speaking with children's author Sally J. Her latest book , The Fire The Water , and Morty McGuinn comes out later this summer and she will be at Warwick's in July. And also in June she'll be at the San Diego Central Library. Sally , thank you so much for sharing this story.

S2: Oh , thank you so much for letting me share it with your listeners.

These undated images show the cover of "The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn" and the book's author Sally J. Pla.
Courtesy of Sally J. Pla
These undated images show the cover of "The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn" and the book's author Sally J. Pla.

Sally J. Pla is on a mission to increase the number of children's books featuring neurodiverse characters and stories.

She is a San Diego-based author of several children's books featuring characters on the autism spectrum, and is an advocate for autism acceptance. Her latest book "The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn" is her first book to feature a female protagonist.

"It's my mission now to try to populate the world with as many neurodivergent characters in children's literature as I can," Pla said.

Pla will be participating in an event at the San Diego Central Library on Saturday, June 10 at 10 a.m.


Sally J. Pla, author, "The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn"