Cammie McGovern’s first YA book, Say What You Will, focused on the unlikely romance between Amy, who has cerebral palsy, and Matthew, who has OCD. Her second, A Step Toward Falling, blends the story of Belinda, who has a developmental disability with that of Emily, a typically developing high school student. And her new book, Just My Luck, her first for middle-graders, features Benny, who is having a hard time with fourth grade and his father’s illness. McGovern spoke with PW about writing for different age groups, her interest in writing about people with disabilities, and why she’d rather write for kids than adults.
How did Just My Luck come to be written?
I actually started this book before I wrote the two YA books that came out first. I had sons who were reluctant readers, and I wanted to write a chapter book for them, something like Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine series, but for boys. But I never submitted it anywhere.
When you came back to it, what had changed?
Well, in the interim, I’d read a ton. And Wonder had come out and changed the landscape for anyone writing about disability. It was no longer something you had to apologize for or explain or sell in spite of. Everybody understands now that all kids are interested in kids unlike themselves and that this is something that kids would want to read about it. Wonder opened the door.
There’s a lot going on in Just My Luck. Benny is trying to acquire the footprints the school is giving out to commend kind acts, he’s not happy with his friend situation, his father has a brain injury, his mother’s worried about money. In this book, the autistic brother is just a fact, not a problem. What for you was the central element to the book?
I wanted to tell a story where disability isn’t the issue and to show how what seems like such a tragedy – the moment when your child gets this diagnosis – becomes a kind of strengthener. It teaches the siblings and the parents resilience, and that’s why I gave Benny’s family the challenge of the dad’s illness – that’s the thing they’re really coping with in the story. I really think that resilience is one of the main things that kids need to learn, and as a parent it’s hard to remember that, because you want to protect your kids. So figuring how to get through bad things and how you model getting through is really important.
George, the autistic brother, is kind of a charmer – have other readers mentioned this?
I’m so glad that came through. This is the funny thing about autistic kids; they can be terrible at many things, but they can be a real bridge to other people and bring out the best in them. So when you’re navigating the world with your obviously disabled child or sibling, you can see that some kids see a need and meet it and are generous and kind. And siblings can get the message watching their disabled sibling that it’s okay to be different.
What are you hoping to do by writing books about young people with disabilities?
The hope is that getting characters with spectrum or developmental disabilities into popular culture will demystify them. I think we’re moving toward that, but considering the enormous numbers of these folks, they’re still way under-represented.
When I was a kid, I never saw anyone with disabilities, whereas kids today have grown up in an era when inclusion is more or less the norm. So they’ve seen them more. But in high school and middle school, the kids with disabilities are separated more. So typically developing kids need reminders and help to remember that these kids have the same desires and hopes that they do. I think there are a lot of kids who would like to get to know them better, but feel shy about it. So I’m hoping that these books will encourage folks.
In both of your books for teens, the people with disabilities want to be in amorous relationships. They want to be loved, to be sexual. Was that something you wanted to bring to the surface?
Yes, absolutely. It was a shocking eye-opener to me when my son came home and said ‘I have a girlfriend.’ The first impulse is ‘that is not a good idea and we need to put a stop to this,” or else a patronizing approach of ‘oh, this is your girlfriend who you’re never going to touch or be alone with?’ And the more you read, the more you realize that for those who are able to handle it, it broadens their lives. There are so many things that may be closed off to people with disabilities – including meaningful vocations – things that will be a source of frustration to them, but this is a place that doesn’t have to be closed off. We can tell them that with support, they can have meaningful relationships. There needs to be a more robust curriculum in special education and life skills classrooms; when that isn’t the case, it leaves kids more vulnerable. That was one of the things I wanted to show with Belinda in A Step Toward Falling.
What about your readers who have disabilities? Is that something you want them to see?
Yes. I’ve had wonderful Skype sessions with kids with disabilities or with book groups when there’s one kid who has a disability, and these books make them feel like they are front and center for a change. So yes, one of the messages is that ‘it’s okay to want this, and it’s okay to say that without being embarrassed.’
When you came back to writing a middle grade book, what felt different from the YA books?
In the YA books, I was revisiting my own teenaged years and thinking about them; I was even re-reading my teenaged diaries. For the middle grade, I was thinking a lot more about my kids. A lot of Just My Luck was based on my youngest son, whose school did something like the footprint program that happens in the book. And I was reading a lot more middle grade books, and you have to think about what kid readers find funny and you have to appeal to what the adult reader who’s reading out loud will also laugh at. So I was trying to channel my sons’ experiences, and I had the goal of trying to appeal to two separate groups. YA doesn’t feel as much like there are two different reading experiences; we’re all revisiting our teen years.
You’ve also written adult books, so you’ve written pretty much across the spectrum. You started with adult books, is that right?
I came up through MFA programs, went to the University of Michigan, the Stegner Fellowship, and I wish those programs would widen their thinking in terms of seeing writing for children as a legitimate and sustainable career choice. I wish I had come to this earlier. I think I should have been here all along, but I just didn’t realize. For many of us, kids’ writing is where we started falling in love with books, and for me, it’s where my skill set is. I’m always trying to be light and funny even as I write these books with quite dark story lines, so hitting that note is important, because for me humor is the way into the book. I feel like my adult books were a little more earnest. And when you write for kids, you can go back and forth between genres; you’re allowed greater variety.
Do you see yourself as part of the We Need More Diverse Books movement?
I think they’ve been very inclusive and have made a point of saying that diverse also means people with disabilities and doing more than just including characters of arbitrary color. I love the work they’re doing to raise money so that people of color and LGBTQ people and people with disabilities can afford to do internships in publishing; one of the problems is that there are so few people in publishing who recognize these stories.
And writers want to talk about more than just promoting their own book. It gives us substance, and it also lets us give readers credit for wanting to read about diverse experiences. I really think they do. I think they go to books wanting to learn about people who aren’t necessarily like them.
What will we see next from you?
I have a middle grade book coming out next year that’s told from the point of view of a dog that has failed service dog school. A family with a non-verbal autistic kid acquires him, and the dog and the boy develop a relationship that the dog narrates. And I’m working on both a YA and a middle grade book.
Just My Luck by Cammie McGovern. Harper, $16.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-06-233065-9