Few authors are willing to enter the world of disabled teenagers. A lack of knowledge combined with fears of not being politically correct cause most to avoid this genre. With charm and sensitivity, Cammie McGovern demonstrates the importance of exposing YA audiences to this neglected group of peers. In Say What You Will, readers see the challenges faced by the physical limitations of cerebral palsy and the social implications of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The developing friendship between the main characters, Amy and Matthew, is simultaneously hindered and enhanced by their respective disabilities. Their voices are clearly heard as they grabble with their own shortcomings and attempt to engage with other people.
Amy’s success lies in her determination to go beyond what is expected. This attitude is partly fueled by her mother’s meddling and tough standards. Most people would expect little from a teenager who could only speak through the assistance of a computerized talker and was unable to walk on her own. Cammie deliberately gives insight into the thoughts and feelings of someone who wants to “fit in” despite her severe limitations.
While Matthew’s issues do not affect his mobility or ability to communicate verbally, his quality of life is short circuited by reoccurring thoughts, senseless behaviors, and irrational fears. Early on, readers enter Matthew’s world.
Counting made him less nervous. Twenty-four steps from the bathroom to the math class. Thirty-six chair desks, four left-handed. Counting was a relief. Almost a pleasure. A way to measure and contain a world that otherwise spun too quickly for him. He thought of a brain divided. One half understood that counting had no bearing on his parents or his life. The other half hoped maybe it did. Gradually, the first year in middle school, he began to understand- there were many ways to be a freak. Amy had no choice, but other people did. If you worked hard and concentrated, you could hide your freakish thoughts. (29)
With Amy’s assistance Matthew recognizes the full extent of his psychological issues. Instead of trying to conceal and camouflage his thoughts and behavior, he works toward overcoming some of the undesirable symptoms.
The frequent interactions between these two characters are a touching and memorable aspect of the story. Amy’s emails- sent and unsent, her written essays, and her computerized responses illustrate the depth of her character. All capped passages remind readers that Amy’s words are expressed via a computer.
Relationships can be tumultuous. Amy and Matthew’s friendship is not an exception. The unevenness of their bond is realistic. After all, relationships oftentimes fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
There was an imbalance from the beginning. He loved being needed in the some of the surprising ways she needed someone. He liked taking care of her, and later, after she started giving him ‘assignments,’ he liked being her project. He tried to explain it to his mother once. ‘Our weaknesses aligned pretty well. We filled each other’s gaps.’ (322-23)
Severe disabilities are riddled with obstacles that need to be overcome. It is hard to imagine the need to rely on technology in order to talk. Near the end of the book, Amy dabbles in playwriting. She is able to hear her ideas stated by real people.
She loved watching actors play with her liense—deliver them one way, then change their minds, and try another. It was almost like the thrill she felt in fourth grade when she got a DynaVox, her first talking computer, and then again with the Pathway, her first computer that sounded (more or less) human. But this was even better—her words being spoken by real people. (331)
Cammi skillfully creates a tapestry of emotions as the two teenagers friendship spirals into a budding romance. Twists and turns in the story leave readers wondering whether their fate is too closely tied to their respective disabilities.
Weeks after completing the book, I am still touched by the messages found within Say What You Will. Similar to many YA novels, the author focuses on the ups and downs of adolescents coping with their expanding sense of self-awareness, friendship, romance and sex. An added layer of sensitivity is included when emotional and physical disabilities are adeptly thrown into the equation. Like the main characters, I am forever changed by the events of the story.
Sandra Bornstein is the author of MAY THIS BE THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE. It is available on Amazon. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a licensed Colorado teacher who has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses. Sandra is married and has four adult sons. The memoir was a finalist in the Travel category for the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the 2013 International Book Awards, the 2013 National Indie Book Excellence Awards, the 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and received an Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global ebook Awards.