Cammie McGovern is the author of a new novel for kids, Chester and Gus. Her other books include Say What You Will and A Step Toward Falling. She is a founder of Whole Children, a resource center focusing on children with special needs. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Chester and Gus?
A: There was a wonderful in-class “therapy dog” in my son’s second grade classroom who all the kids loved. My son would come home with funny stories about how the kids included “Brody” in reading time and math and dealt him cards to play Uno with them.
When I finally asked the teacher about the dog’s background, she told me he had failed out of service dog training and she just brought him to school with her because he was too young to leave at home alone. He wasn’t really a “therapy” dog but she had to admit, he was so smart and so sensitive, he’d performed that job many times during the course of that year.
It got me thinking about all the amazing jobs dogs do for people and how connected they are to the sense of “having a job.” Watching Brody in action, it seemed very clear to me that Brody was continuing the work he was born to do but hadn’t quite made the grade to be able to do it.
Q: Why did you decide to tell the story from Chester’s point of view?
A: As the parent of a son with autism and the owner of a wonderful chocolate lab named Buddy, I can tell you honestly, I think it’s easier sometimes to guess what a dog might be thinking than a young child with autism. This is one of the great conundrums for parents of children with developmental disabilities. They’re such an ongoing, ever-fluctuating mystery.
Once I started writing from Chester’s point of view, I realized that a dog looking to please and serve “his person” could articulate some aspects of autism in a way that might be good for kids to read. He wouldn’t have the judgment the rest of assign to strange behaviors. He’d simply observe and accept. Isn’t this what we love so much about our dogs?
And then it occurred to me—maybe families (and mothers!) could learn a little bit about accepting our children with differences by watching a dog love them regardless.
Q: Can you say more about why you’ve chosen to write in your books about disability issues, and what do you hope your readers take away from the books?
A: A few years after my son was diagnosed, I joined up with a group of other mothers to start an afterschool center for children with special needs called Whole Children (in Hadley, MA).
It’s grown and turned into quite an amazing place that has been serving over 600 kids and their families for the last 10 years. Which mostly means I’ve gotten to know a LOT of children with special needs and have marveled at what they’ve taught their families about resilience, tolerance, and especially about finding joy in the face of challenges.
Though this has changed quite a bit in recent years, I continue to believe that characters with disabilities are woefully underrepresented in books, TV shows and movies, especially the with the simple message that they have lives of their own, like every one else, full of dreams and aspirations. That’s been my primary motivation for writing about these characters.
Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes along the way?
A: I almost never map my books out ahead of time. I might have a general sense of where I want one to head, but then I change it so much. Whatever I thought I wanted, I can’t get to work and the surprising avenue is the one to go down.
This always means writing much more than I end up using. I wish I could figure out a more economical way to do this but I can’t.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Another middle grade novel--a re-working of a lesser-known fairy tale, “The Wild Swan”--and a new young adult as well.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I suppose just a poignant note--that right after I finished Chester and Gus, our dear dog, Buddy, was diagnosed with cancer. He died right before we were deciding on the cover and the sainted folks at Harper Collins let me choose a dog-model who looked exactly like Buddy. I’ll be forever grateful to them for that….
--Interview with Deborah Kalb