Rebecca McQuilten is a pretty average New Zealand teenager: she's got an okay relationship with her parents; she worries about school and making - keeping - friends; she's been sexually assaulted but has told no one about it and, when feelings about the assault overwhelm her, Rebecca cuts herself.

Because she likes to feel in control, she doesn't drink or take drugs to the same extent that some of her friends do - including the boy-next-door, Cory, who often seems depressed.

Welcome to New Zealand author Eileen Merriman's debut YA novel, Pieces of You, which could well become one of the biggest local YA books of the year. It's intelligent, literate - chapter headings reference classical and contemporary books - without becoming too scholarly, it's pertinent, witty when it needs to be, thought-provoking and relatable.

Merriman, a fulltime consultant haematologist at North Shore Hospital and part-time writer who has been successful in several short-story writing competitions, picks up on what is a concerning, but not new, tendency among teens: self-harm.


According to the University of Auckland's Adolescent Health Research Group Youth '12 Overview: The Health and Wellbeing of New Zealand Secondary School Students in 2012, deliberate self-harm among 8500 high school students surveyed was "fairly common".

The report said 29 per cent of female students and 18 per cent of male students had deliberately harmed themselves in the previous 12 months and the prevalence of frequent self-harm, defined as three or more self-harming behaviours in the past 12 months, was around one in 13 students.

Merriman started Pieces of You as a short story, which won third place in the 2014 Sunday Star Times short story competition. Her niece, Bella, encouraged her to turn it into a book and, once the first draft was written, Merriman sent it to the New Zealand Society of Authors.

Accepted into its mentorship programme, she worked with award-winning writer and teacher Paula Morris.

"I've found I really enjoy writing YA fiction because I like writing for people who are at transition times in their lives. It fascinates me because there's so much going on at those times and people's emotions can be all over the place. It's partly about relating to young people and for them to be able to realise, 'that's like me'."

Merriman was never going to shy away from some of her novel's more confronting self-harm themes. "I heard [bestselling YA author] Jennifer Niven at the Auckland Writers Festival and I think she summed it up best when she said, 'you don't know how many teens have tweeted or emailed me to say thank you because our parents are not listening'.

"Look at our suicide rates in New Zealand; for a long time, we've been told not to talk about it yet we have some of the highest rates in the world so I don't think it's done much good not to talk about it. Books can generate conversations and it's important to educate our teenagers and discuss issues with them."

Most recently, we've heard this said about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which explores the events leading up to a teenage girl's suicide. Before that, there was Ted Dawe's coming-of-age story, Into the River, which depicts a schoolboy moving from the East Coast to Auckland and encountering sex, drugs, racism and death at boarding school.


Pam Jones, the district children and teens' librarian for South Taranaki and judges' convenor for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, agrees with Merriman about how books get us talking.

"In my role as a librarian, I feel very strongly that there's a place for novels with gritty themes but there is a balance between not giving away too much information - so it doesn't become a 'how to' - and creating a conversation that teenagers have with adults they feel comfortable talking with. Books allow readers to experience the lives of other people and this helps create empathy. It's a wonderful way to gain an understanding of how other people live and what they might be experiencing without having to go through it yourself."

Jones says we're naive to think what's in a standard YA novel doesn't reflect what's going on in the lives of a goodly number of teenagers or at our local high schools. She's heartened by the fact that increasingly New Zealand writers are tackling these issues and, what's more, young New Zealand readers want books written and set here rather than in the US or UK.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Professor Sally Merry says obviously authors need to take care when writing about subjects like self-harm and suicide so as not to make it sound appealing.

"I think it's important to point out that most things can be solved," she says. "Young people have a wonderful capacity for coming through difficult situations and being resilient."

Merry says those writers who write most successfully about such topics find hope in the characters' journeys and, through the story, offer alternatives to risky behaviour. That's, more or less, what Merriman does in Pieces of You, which includes contacts for local support services.

Her brother, Philip, committed suicide in 1999 aged 21. She's dedicated the book to him but says writing some of its saddest scenes was not as difficult as she thought because she was able to distance herself from those real-life events.

She hopes teenagers will share and talk about her book and tells of a colleague who told her that her daughter, 18, hadn't read a book for some time but was wandering round with a copy of Pieces of You tucked under her arm.

But Merriman - along with Jones and Merry - has a challenge for the significant adults in our teens' lives. They believe they should read the books their kids are and initiate the difficult conversations.

Pieces of You
by Eileen Merriman
(Penguin Books, $20)