November 02

Write What You Know by Erin Soderberg Downing

Controlled Burn is the book I’ve been wanting to write since I started my publishing journey more than twenty years ago, but it took almost fifteen years of writing other books before I truly believed I was a good enough writer to do this story justice. Even though this novel is a tribute to my grandpa Howard, and my childhood adventures, and an exploration of the fears and anxieties that sometimes try to control me, I couldn’t quite figure out how to put all those pieces of me together into a story that felt just right. I didn’t know how to write well about the things I know best.

Ultimately, this book’s journey started with a photo. When I was growing up, most of the pictures on my grandparents’ walls had fun stories behind them. The one that fascinated me most was a newspaper photo of my grandpa Howard, nursing a newborn fawn.

There is a scene in the middle of Controlled Burn where the main character, Maia, and her grandpa Howard come upon a deer that’s been hit and killed by a car. When Grandpa stops and pulls the dead animal to the side of the road, he realizes the deer is pregnant…and the fawn is still alive inside her belly. This scene—a key piece of the story that helped inspire both the setting and Grandpa’s character for this novel—was one of the first scenes I developed and was based on a real-life event. Many years ago, before I was born, my grandpa did exactly that: cut a fawn from its dead mother’s womb, brought it home with him, and nursed it to health alongside his dogs until the deer was old enough to release into a nearby wildlife preserve.

The idea for Controlled Burn has been living as a spark inside me for years, but the story has taken time to build and grow. It is a book that was inspired by many true things:

  • The story behind that photo, of my grandpa and the fawn
  • My own childhood adventures exploring Minnesota’s woods and lakes with my parents and cousins
  • Grandpa Howard’s stories from his years working in a fire lookout and as a wilderness guide in Northern Minnesota
  • My mom’s firsthand experience fighting forest fires when I was a kid and teen
  • The myriad of fears and anxieties that have too often consumed and controlled me, as well as the healing power of nature that helps ground me when I’m feeling lost and overwhelmed.

The best part of writing and planning this book was getting the opportunity to remember and reflect on some of the wonderful time I spent with my amazing grandparents, while growing up surrounded by the nature and beauty of Minnesota’s great Northwoods. Though my own grandpa Howard was not nearly as gruff as Maia’s (my grandpa was hilarious, outgoing, mischievous, and everyone who met him loved him), so many pieces of his character, this novel’s setting, and Maia’s experiences were based on bits and pieces borrowed from real life experiences.

In this story, I’ve written about the people, places, and feelings that I know best, and I hope readers will enjoy spending some time in a story I love so much.


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 Maia 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.


Erin Soderberg Downing Author PhotoErin Soderberg Downing has published more than seventy-five books for kids, tweens, and young adults, including Controlled Burn (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection) and the forthcoming Just Keep Walking (Scholastic Press, spring 2024). She has also written several popular series for young readers: The Great Peach Experiment (a JLG Gold Standard Selection), Puppy Pirates, and The Quirks. Erin loves reading, swimming, baking, exploring the woods, traveling with her family, and walking around Minneapolis lakes with her fluffy and mischievous dogs, Wally and Nutmeg. More information can be found at