Just Maria is the story of Maria Romero, a blind sixth-grader who is trying her hardest to be normal. Not amazing. Not inspiring. Not helpless. Not weird. Just normal.
Normal is hard enough with her white cane, glass eyes, and bumpy books, but Maria’s task is complicated by her neighbor and classmate JJ Munson, an asthmatic overweight oddball known in the halls of Marble City Middle as a double-dork paste-eater. When JJ draws Maria into his latest hare-brained scheme—a series of public challenges to prove their worth as gumshoes for his Twinnoggin Detective Agency—she fears she’s lost her last chance to go unnoticed.
As she tackles JJ’s bizarre challenges, Maria is surprised to find how liberating it can feel to step outside of normal, break a tiny rule now and then, and not worry so much about what others think. When a young girl goes missing on the streets of Marble City, Maria’s new-found confidence is tested in ways she never anticipated.
Use your cane and your brain, and figure it out...
Aimed at middle-grade readers, Just Maria explores difference and disability without resorting to the saccharine, while engaging universal themes about the price of popularity and the meaning of independence. The lessons Maria learns are lessons for all of us: be true to yourself, be true to your friends and the world needs more weird.
Interview Questions From Author, Jay Hardwig
How long have you wanted to write a novel with a blind protagonist? And how did your experience as a teacher help you to create Maria’s character?
I wrote Just Maria because I thought it needed to be written. I’ve been a teacher for the blind and visually impaired for over 20 years. About 10 years back, I had a student who was a voracious reader, a fifth-grade bookworm who had worked his way through a good chunk of the digital library that provided books for the blind. I went looking for books that featured kids with disabilities as protagonists, and didn’t find many. Most of the ones I did find tended toward the sentimental or mawkish. I wanted to write a book that had a character who was blind but also flawed, one who makes mistakes at times, and gives in to her baser impulses.
To put it another way, so often in books featuring characters with disabilities, the narrative purpose of those characters is to motivate others to change and grow. I wanted to explore what would happen if it was the kid with the disability who needed to do some changing and growing herself. Like all kids do.
My experiences with students who are blind inform every page of Just Maria. In many ways, Maria is a composite of the students I’ve taught for most of my adult life, and many of those students will recognize something they said or did in the pages of Just Maria.
Will adults enjoy and learn from this book as much as younger readers will?
I’ve been surprised at how much positive feedback I’ve gotten from my adult readers. I wrote this book for younger readers, to be sure; adults were never my focus. But since the book has come out, I’ve had several adults reach out and tell me how much they enjoyed the book, and how their time with Maria has given them unexpected insight into a life lived with blindness. Many of them have told me that the humor in the book keeps it approachable; they don’t feel preached to, or taught to, but rather that they’ve been invited to share in a story, and learn about a life. So while the book is aimed at middle-grade readers, and takes place in a middle school, I believe readers of all ages will find something to think about.
What would you like for readers to gain from reading your book?
I certainly hope the reader comes away with a more subtle and nuanced understanding of what it’s like to live with blindness, but more than that, I hope the reader sees something of themself in Maria. Hopefully they will identify with her competing motivations and conflicting feelings, her struggle to do the right thing, and understand once again that what makes us the same is greater than what makes us different.
Plus, the world needs more weird.
What’s the nicest thing anyone has said about the book so far?
Most gratifying for me has been the feedback from former students of mine, I’m a teacher for the blind and visually impaired, and Just Maria was inspired by conversations with the kids I’ve taught. Some of those students (and their parents) read early drafts of Just Maria, and without their blessing I would not have published it.
My favorite review so far has come from Layla, who was ten years old when she listened to an early audio draft of Just Maria:
“As a blind child, I really enjoyed this book because it spreads information about blind people and what they do. I also loved the characters and the plot. I thought it was very suspenseful. A great read for the sighted or blind. I would highly recommend it.”
Just Maria is published by the Fitzroy Books imprint of Regal House Publishing, an independent press based in Raleigh. The release date was January 7, 2022. It is available wherever you get your books, your beloved local bookstore can order it, or you can find it at your favorite online bookseller.