In 2015 someone I loved had a breakdown. They were missing in action for six months, incapable of working, eating or even getting out of bed. I was totally unprepared for the range of emotions I felt trying to love someone who was clinically depressed. I started with sympathy, but quickly moved onto frustration, resentment and rage. As an adult I could cope with these emotions, but what happens when a child is caught up in all of that? 

I think as parents we want to try and protect our children from the truth. From what we see are adult concepts and adult issues. But our children are smarter and more observant than we give them credit for. If they aren’t told the truth, then they invent their own version, and that can be far more frightening. I’m no expert on mental illness or depression or parenting. But my experience of how my children coped was that they wanted information. They wanted to understand – not everything, but enough so they weren’t left guessing.  

Books have a huge role to play in the lives of young people. As parents we need to let our children read and choose the stories they want and need. They’ll stop reading if the books are too old or too difficult. My daughter has always wanted sad stories so that she can process things in her life through reading. But if the book is too sad then she’ll stop reading until she’s up for it. 

Because my daughter is a huge reader who uses books to help sort out things she’s feeling, I started writing The Secrets We Keep as a way for her and I to discuss what we were both feeling. Pretty soon we found a rhythm. I’d write and she’d edit. I discovered that she was editing the emotional pitch of the story, and through the main character of Clem Timmins (also 11) she was able to express exactly how she felt. As Clem became desperate to run away, so did my daughter. As Clem hid behind secrets about her family, so did my daughter. As Clem finally learned to face what was happening, so did my daughter. The book didn’t inform my daughter of how to be, she shaped the emotional terrain of the book.  

Without intending to write a middle grade novel that deals with secrets and mental illness, that’s what I did. I wrote it for me and I wrote it for her. I wrote it for us so we’d have some way to stay afloat while everything was coming apart around us. By the time the book was published, the person we loved had recovered. We’d all gone through a very difficult six months and come out the other end.   

Writing the second book, The Secrets We Share was not a sad process. It doesn’t deal with mental illness or depression in the same way. Instead Clem is facing the start of high school and all that it means. I decided to focus on that transition because I felt like it was time for Clem to experience something that all young people experience. I didn’t want her to feel alone in her experiences anymore.  

Also my daughter was about to start high school and I watched her grapple with all the usual anxiety around change. Would she be in a class with friends? Would she know what to wear? Would she cope with homework? They were all very normal concerns, but I felt like they hadn’t been written about much in Australian middle grade fiction.  

Middle grade fiction is not young adult fiction. It’s not dealing with the heaviness of teenage years, but nor should it shy away from the difficulties of these years.  

The character of Clem in the books is cranky and angry and unpredictable. In all the ways our kids are. In all the ways we are. She is my way into exploring this fascinating time between the protection and innocence of primary school and the fledgling sophistication of high school. A writer friend, Emily Gale, nailed it when she said it’s the period where books want to “get into young adult, has applied some lipgloss and is hiding its nerves”. 

My daughter has used reading as a way to process so many things. Without books I think she would have struggled to understand tough emotional issues. Hopefully my character of Clem is a way into some of these issues for other young readers too. Clem has all the usual problems with friends, parents, and expressing herself. She is about to dive into being a teenager, but before she does, she’s sitting on the edge, trying to work out what it’s all about. Just like I did. Just like my daughter did. Just like we all did.