Allison's Book Bag

Founder of Whole Children, Cammie McGovern

Posted on: March 26, 2015

Born in Illinois, Cammie McGovern moved to Los Angeles when she was seven, and now lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three sons. Though McGovern kept a journal as a child and as a teenager, she didn’t start writing for publication until long after she graduated from college. Now she’s the author of three adult novels and one teen novel, Say What You Will. The latter I’ll review tomorrow. Save the date: March 26!


After high school, McGovern attended a college with a great literary reputation but that offered no creative writing classes. McGovern tells Sandra Bornstein that in her second semester of her senior year, she convinced a theater professor to let her do an independent study on playwriting. That was when she fell in love with writing.

McGovern confesses to Sandra Bornstein that when she graduated college and moved to New York, she pretended to be interested in other kinds of careers but at night secretly stayed working on stories and plays. After four years, and some mixed success with plays and screenplays, she realized that her true passion was fiction. McGovern applied to MFA programs, ended up being accepted to University of Michigan, and loved it.

In 2004, sometime after getting married and becoming a mother of a child with disabilities, McGovern started a center called Whole Children. Originally, the idea was to create a small center that would run after school gymnastics classes for kids with special needs to work on their motor skills issues and socialize at the same time. It grew very quickly, in part McGovern feels because it answered a need no one recognized at the time, that of offering affordable therapies for kids with disabilities. Sandra Bornstein notes that within a few years, the center was serving close to two hundred kids and their families in classes that ran year-round. Indeed, in the space of ten years, the center has continued to grow and now serves over 700 hundred kids from preschool age to adults with a huge variety of classes. McGovern calls it a community of friends.

Along the way, McGovern also wrote three novels for adults. Eye Contact is about a boy with autism who witnesses a murder that takes place during school hours, in the woods behind his elementary playground. His mom, and others at the school, all have to read his clues to figure out how much he knows and what he’s trying to tell them. It’s being used by teachers and librarians in discussions about bullying and tolerance of kids with special needs. In About Cammie, McGovern shares that another novel of hers that might be of interest to young adult is The Art of Seeing, about two sisters and how their relationship grows and changes when the older one becomes a movie actress, secretly suffering from a condition that threatens her eyesight. For it, McGovern admits she might have drawn a few details from her sister’s life, Elizabeth McGovern who currently starring in Downton Abbey and has fine eyesight.

BOOK BACKGROUND  Cammie McGovern with her son, Ethan, at her home in Amherst June 10.
Cammie McGovern with her son, Ethan.

McGovern’s newest book, Say What You Will, is targeted specifically at young adults. According to About Cammie, the idea for Say What You Will came two sources. First, as the parent of a seventeen-year-old son with autism, McGovern understands the loneliness and isolation that kids with disabilities can feel. Moreover, when her son hit puberty, he showed typical rebellion, desire for independence, and interest in romance. On the theme of sex present in the book, McGovern stresses that she didn’t want to back away from that issue, because that’s also part of the disability experience.

A second inspiration came from the daughter of one of the mothers who helped start Whole Children. The girl was born with severe cerebral palsy. Her parents were told she would probably never learn to walk, talk, or even roll over. “Maybe because her problems were so different than my son’s …. I became really fascinated by the long and amazing journey this girl took. She not only learned to roll over, she was walking independently by the time she was eight, and has since gone on to defy all the doctor’s initial predictions.” McGovern notes that even as the girl sat in her bouncy-seat at meetings, it was clear that she had more going on than doctors might have realized. For example, her laugh always came just as the moms in the room were sharing a joke, as if she’d understood everything we were talking about. This got McGovern thinking about what life might be like for her down the road, as a teenager with a disabled body but a mind that was sharp. If you’re curious, you can see a shot of McGovern’s son and the girl who partly inspired the character of Amy at the 2:41 mark.

As to why McGovern writes books about kids with disabilities, About Cammie reveals that McGovern has always been interested in this topic. Many of her favorite books growing up centered around characters with disabilities. Even many of her early stories were about characters with various afflictions. Apparently, her first “novel” started with a “screech screech” sound effect of the main character walking in leg braces across the floor. McGovern surmises that she empathized with them. “I was a watchful outsider for most of my childhood, much shier than I am now. I assumed they were all smart and funny underneath their facades of difference just as I was smart and funny underneath my shyness. Now, of course, I realize that’s silly. Children and teens with disabilities are as varied as children and teens without disabilities.”

Her experience with Whole Children, obviously however, helped directly inspire Say What You Will. Here and Now notes that by being surrounded by teens with disabilities and “seeing how much they wanted relationships and love as much as their typically developing peers, it felt like time to write a story about that”.

McGovern does emphasize that while her story will feel real, the experiences of others with autism and with cerebral palsy could very well be different from that of her characters in Say What You Will. She shares with Sandra Bornstein that her hope in writing about Matthew and Amy was to “in part, to demystify the experience and let people know–yes, people with disabilities are funny, tough, silly, anxious, ambitious–all the same qualities that everyone else has”. She also hopes that more books, shows, and movies will feature characters with disabilities at the center.

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