Controlled Burn

Age Range
Release Date
November 01, 2022
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From acclaimed middle-grade and chapter-book author, Erin Soderberg Downing, Controlled Burn is a story that blends family, friendship, fire, and the rocky path toward healing our deepest fears.
Twelve-year-old Maia’s parents say she’s lucky she noticed something as early as she did. Lucky to have smelled the smoke, lucky to have pulled her sister, Amelia, out of their burning house. But is it really “lucky” when Amelia’s stuck in the hospital, covered in burns? And is it “lucky” when Maia knows it was her candle, left unattended, that started the fire in the first place?

When she’s sent to spend the summer with her grandparents in Northern Minnesota while her sister heals, Maia discovers that her anxieties and demons are intent on following her wherever she goes…unless she can figure out how to overcome them. But what if she can’t? Maia barely knows her grandparents, she desperately misses her sister and home, and she’s not thrilled to be spending the summer with Grandpa Howard on his daily motorcycle rides out to the middle of the woods, where he spends all day keeping watch for forest fires. There are no kids her age in Gram and Pop’s small town at “the end of the road”―just the chatty nine-year-old neighbor who is intent on getting his Bear Scout badge at all costs, and a friendly, stray dog who’s been lurking around.

But Maia will soon learn that nature is a powerful teacher, and sometimes our greatest strengths show themselves when we have to be there for someone else. As she begins to figure out how to face her guilt and paralyzing fears, she’ll discover there’s a fine line between fear and adventure. And when danger strikes again, Maia must summon all her bravery and overcome her self-doubt if she wants to save those she loves most.

Editor review

1 review
Fiery Emotions
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Maia's house is undergoing rennovations, and a devastating fire while she is home alone with her sister Amelia leaves her sister suffering from massive burns and the family's home destroyed. Maia feels that the fire is her fault but keeps this to herself after she is hailed as a hero for saving her sister. With Amelia in the hospital, Maia is sent from her Chicago area home to stay with her grandmother and grandfather in a very small town in Minnesota. She usually only sees her grandparents once a year during awkward visits, so Maia isn't thrilled. It's not all bad; her father has a dog, Bear, that hangs around the house, she meets a younger neighbor boy, Griffin, and her grandmother is willing to take her different places when she's not working at a local store. The grandparents don't have a lot of patience for Maia's constant anxiety, however. Her grandfather, a gruff, reticent sort, spends his days at the top of a local fire tower, where he worked for years. Even in retirement, he likes to keep watch to make sure that the area is safe. Given Maia's dealings with fire, she not thrilled, and definitely doesn't want to climb to the top of the tower. Her grandfather is perfectly happy to leave her on the ground, which gets a bit boring. Eventually, they bring Bear, and Maia manages to spend some time with Griffin working on scout badges, including a swimming one. Amelia is making very slow progress, and her parents check in with Maia frequently, but she really just wants them to ask her to come home. She eventually talks to her grandparents about her fear that she caused the fire and her general anxiety. Her grandfather even explains some of his past, and they help her to see that dwelling on the past or worrying about the future is not a productive way to spend time. This proves especially helpful in motivating Maia to go outside her comfort zone when she really needs to.
Good Points
While I don't have Minnesota roots, I do have some embroidered sweatshirts, and share a generational view of dealing with anxiety shared by the grandparents. Downing does an excellent job in portraying both Maia's and her grandparents' reactions to events in their lives as somewhat reasonable, but also shows that these reactions are sometimes not in their own best interests. This is such a refreshing change; usually older generations' advice or coping skills are discounted or treated as inferior, but I loved the balance, especially when everyone involved is able to heal a little bit using other methods. The Minnesota setting is fun, and Maia has a generally positive outlook, as evidenced by her willingness to work with Griffin. The details about the fire tower and quite interesting.

I would almost have liked to see a tiny bit more about Maia's life in Chicago so that I understood her more, but young readers will be glad that things happen right away. Starting a book with a fire is always a way to get people interested in a book.

Pair this one with Henry's Playing with Fire and Philbrick's Wildfire, since both include a bit about house fires and wildnerness ones, although this doesn't have the survival element of Henry's work. This had more of a feel of Bishop's Where I Used to Roam, with a problem at home that sends a child to spend the summer with relatives. An intriguing realistic fiction title with a message of resiliency and an upward emotional arc.
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