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Margot MGovern: The importance of discussing mental illness in YA literature

April 5, 2018

Kit Learmonth has returned home from boarding school after a failed attempt to end her life.

Home for the famous Learmonth family is an island dubbed Neverland where Kit’s father, a renowned
author, once created a mythical world for his daughter filled with adventure, pirates, selks and mermaids.

Neverland is now far from the fantasy world of her childhood and is literally an island for lost children and is where troubled teens are treated by Doc, Kit’s uncle and a psychiatrist. Despite her return as a patient this time, being home still brings her great comfort at a time when Kit has lost hope.

Read our full review

Words || Margot McGovern

When I was a teen, female protagonists were, as a general rule, waifish. Ideally, also smart and funny, with a super power up their sleeve and a scrum of boys (yes, it had to be boys) vying for their attention. But if nothing else, they were pretty and thin. And I felt as though if I couldn’t be that, I wouldn’t be deserving of a story. The best I could hope for would be to become the villain or the fool in someone else’s tale. So I made myself small, and miserable in the process. I remember the first time I fit into a size 8 top, I kept the tag and stuck it on my pin-up board above my desk. It stayed there all through high school as a reminder of what I thought I needed to be in order to count. There’s a terrible irony in making yourself disappear in order to be seen.

I knew my thinking wasn’t sound, but I had nothing to fight back with. So not only did I starve myself ‘normal’, I judged other people who didn’t fit within my narrow, media-fed understanding of what ‘normal’ was. And it took a long time to unlearn that. Because when something is missing from our collective storytelling – whether that something be big girls, LGBTQIA+ characters and relationships, settings outside capital cities, mental illness, or a thousand other things besides – that something becomes illicit. Other. Something you are expected to hide and be ashamed of. Which is why anything teens experience in real life has a place in YA, and YA authors have a responsibility to nudge readers outside their comfort zones and invite them to consider different points of view.

Neverland started as a story about memory, grief and yearning. My protagonist, Kit, is a character in crisis; the narrative finds her after a failed attempt to take her own life and she struggles with her mental health throughout. Once I realised that mental illness would play a key role in Kit’s story, and in her friends’ stories, I focused on trying to present it within a constructive context and creating empathetic characters without downplaying or romanticising the seriousness of their conditions.

Speaking as a parent, it’s scary that young people have a need for stories like Neverland. However, mental illness disproportionately affects teens, and to deny them these stories wouldn’t protect them, but rather shut down important conversations that dispel the stigma around mental illness and build awareness, understanding and compassion.

My greatest hope for Neverland is that it finds readers who recognise something of themselves in Kit and in doing so realise that they are not alone, that they can find a way forward and, most importantly, that they and their stories matter.

Purchase a copy of Neverland here

Read an extract here

Margot McGovern is an Adelaide-based writer who holds a Ph.D. from Flinders University. She is a former associate editor of Ride On cycling magazine and has reviewed for several Australian literary journals, including Australian Book ReviewKill Your Darlings and Viewpoint. Margot blogs at http://lectito.me and you can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @project_lectito.


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