We meet… author Caryl Hart

Her new book is called Girls Can Do Anything and if you need a real life example that this statement is true, look no further than Caryl Hart herself.

The mum-of-two’s ambition to become a children’s author started when she visited the library with her baby daughter and came across some poorly written books. She went home and told her husband: ‘I could do better than that’.

It took another ten years but in 2009, at the age of 42, her first book was published, entitled Don’t Dip Your Chips In Your Drink, Kate! Now she’s in double figures, signed with seven different publishers and has a cast of much-loved characters to her name, like Albie, Whiffy Wilson and Prince George, plus The Princess And The… series.

How To Catch A Dragon by Caryl Hart and Ed Eaves

While there’s a growing selection of books out there to inspire young girls and boys about what women can achieve (led by the Little People, Big Dreams biographies), Caryl’s contribution is unusual because it speaks to a younger audience. It has been thoughtfully put together with illustrator Ali Pye (of You Can Never Run Out Of Love fame) to showcase a fascinating group of females, with empowering rhyming text.

We caught up with Caryl to chat about the book and had a brilliant time putting the world to rights, discussing why women are still losing out to men and how a bout of depression changed her life for the better…

Author Caryl Hart

Girls Can Do Anything by Caryl Hart and Ali Pye

The new book is called Girls Can Do Anything – why did you want to tackle this timely topic?

It goes back to when I was growing up. I was told by my parents that you can do anything you want to and in my family that was acceptable and fine. But society told me something different. I was a tomboy and recently I was reading the blog A Mighty Girl and realised that tomboy is not a very positive term for little girls who like to do adventurous things, because it is saying you are not really a proper girl. You are not a girl, you are not a boy, you are a halfway house. It summed up how I felt growing up. I didn’t feel like I was a proper girl.

I felt there was space for a book to talk to really young children, to give them evidence. – not just telling them a girl can be a firefighter or an explorer, but showing them and giving them evidence that this is true in the real world. That’s what I was trying to achieve.

What’s nice about the book is you include the whole range, so girls can be feminine and be a firefighter.

I don’t want children to feel that they have to fit into one idea of what someone of their gender should be. I think the atmosphere for teens is good at the moment. My daughters are 19 and 15, and at their school there is a lot of tolerance for difference, especially in terms of sexuality and gender identity. But I think young children still naturally separate themselves out into categories, because that is what they see around them. I wanted to tell kids that it is alright to be what you want to be – you don’t have to be what other people say a girl is or a boy should be.

Girls Can Do Anything by Caryl Hart and Ali PyeGirls Can Do Anything by Caryl Hart and Ali Pye

Like you, I was raised to think I could do anything, but have realised as I’ve got older that this still isn’t the case. Now I have a son, I feel a strong need to educate him how to treat women but also that he is allowed not to be a stereotype of a man either.

Yes, and it’s not just how to treat women – it’s how to treat other people. Children need to learn how to have emotions and how to express them in ways that don’t come out as anger and violence. It is inevitable that we, as parents, have our own perceptions of the world instilled from our own experiences growing up. They are bound to influence the way we bring up our children, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. It’s really difficult not to stereotype.

When I first started writing professionally ten years ago, I wasn’t aware of any of these issues. I just started writing because I wanted to write. I wanted to see if I could get a book published. It was all about me. Now, because I do a lot of work in schools and libraries, and with kids from very deprived communities, I want to make sure that I’m writing stories for the children who actually read them.

It has made me think about gender roles, stereotypes, ethnicity, and challenge my own white, middle class upbringing. I only knew two black kids growing up and both were in care. I didn’t know any Asian children at all. Everybody I knew was white and middle class. My parents were really liberal and there was no homophobia in my home, but the rest of the world I lived in did not hold such views.

I have a similar thing. I grew up in the South Wales Valleys so that is a really white and working class area. There wasn’t racism as such because there was no one to be racist towards. But I moved away, moved abroad, lived in London. Now I am conscious of the underlying use of language that isn’t tolerant and the lack of diversity in books.

I first started properly thinking about it eight years ago when I went to the Imagine Children’s Festival in London. I met a woman called Carmen Haselup who was running an activity about inclusivity in books. She said to me: ‘Kids need to see themselves in books.’ I realised she was right. Children need to find characters they can relate to if they are to have a life-long interest in books and reading.

Girls Can Do Anything has real diversity within the children depicted and the influential women you have picked for the endpapers.

I was conscious of not wanting to wheel out the same old famous women that children are routinely taught about. If we continue to refer to the same examples over and over again, the impression we give is that there are only half a dozen famous women who have ever done anything. Lots of children have already heard about Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale.  I wanted to give them some other women to learn about and look up to.

Girls Can Do Anything by Caryl Hart and Ali PyeGirls Can Do Anything by Caryl Hart and Ali Pye

I love that Nicola Adams, the Olympic boxer from Leeds, is in there.

We tried to choose a range of fields that the women illustrated had excelled in, along with a range of ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities, and contemporary as well as historical figures. Growing up, I didn’t have any female role models at all. I wanted to be David Attenborough because I loved animals.  The only women I knew who had done anything were my mum, my granny, and my teachers at school. That was it. I thought women were boring and limited. I thought they were less important, less imaginative and less interesting than men and I knew I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted more from my life.  I didn’t want to be a girl because wearing dresses and being pretty and polite seemed trivial, belittling and impractical to me, aged ten.

In writing Girls Can Do Anything, I wanted to give girls role models that were real people who exist in the real world, as opposed to unrelatable figures from ancient history.  For example, we have a builder, Sue Wimpenny, who is a CEO of her own company. How often do you see women builders, either in real life or in literature or on the screen?  Yet they do exist. I wanted to include not only women who had achieved international recognition for their work in the sciences or sport, but also women who were doing ordinary jobs that are traditionally thought of as being only for men.  I wanted children to see people they could identify with, people they could aspire to become.

When I go into school, a lot of the kids I work with rarely go beyond their own housing estates.  They don’t see or meet a great variety of people, and have very limited experience of what the world has to offer them.  I feel that books give us an opportunity to expose kids to other lives and think about what’s outside their small world.

What book number is this for you? I heard you have a target of trying to get to 100.

I’ve got 31 out, then four more this year and 15 in production. I reckon I’ll get to 100 before I die!

J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, as retold by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton
Caryl’s retelling of Peter Pan in rhyme has just been published and is aimed at readers aged 2-5.

I love the story about how you got started as a writer and said to your husband: ‘I could do better than that’. How did it go from there?

I just wrote some rubbish and did some cut-outs that were pretty basic. But I had a one-year-old and I was working three days a week, then had another child. I didn’t have time but I had the drive, so it took a while. One of my first books was Say Sorry, Sidney! and I can remember writing that when we were moving house in 2001. I sent it off to various places and got a couple of polite rejections.

Then in 2007, I was really poorly with depression. I had to leave my job and everything ground to a halt. I slept for about three months and had this moment where my husband and I realised this could be my opportunity to go for it with my writing. We said we would give it a year. If I didn’t make progress, I’d have to go back to work. So I was really motivated!

I went out to the Bologna Book Fair to try and network. I met Tony Ross, David McKee and gatecrashed an Egmont party. There was a woman ordering a drink in Italian so I asked if she could order me an orange juice. It turned out that she was an agent and she was impressed that I’d gone out there, not knowing anyone. She asked me to send her my work and as a result, introduced me to a friend who had just started as an agent.  I signed with Nancy Miles, from Miles Stott, six months later.

So if you hadn’t got ill, you might still be trying?

Yes, because sometimes you have to be forced to jump, don’t you? I don’t think I would have had the courage to leave a paid job with two little kids. I may have come to it later, in my mid-fifties, but not at that point.

This goes back to way we are raised as girls I think. We are told that we can do anything but once you have children, it’s very hard to pursue your career without any thought to anything else.

I think that’s why I got so ill because I was trying to do everything. I was trying to be a good mum to two girls, cook everything from scratch, run the house, keep fit and work at the capacity that everyone else was. It was too much. My body and my brain just said: ‘Nah, not doing that any more’.

People who have small children are just expected to still be a certain way, look a certain way…

And we expect it of ourselves, because it’s what our mothers and grandmothers did.

Until recently, I still felt it was my role to do most of the cooking, cleaning, washing and childcare. I felt my career was secondary and that my role as a wife and mother had to come first. Putting my career first at times still makes me feel guilty – and that’s completely nuts! I think it’s really hard for women to feel it’s okay to expect their partners or children to contribute equally to the running of the home and to value their own careers equally. But in allowing ourselves to become secondary in this way, we are telling our own children that this is acceptable.

I still find myself ready to drop what I am doing to run the children around or to cook dinner or walk the dog. It has been the norm for me to fit my job around everyone else.  But I realise now that what I thought was good parenting – always being there for my children – was actually teaching my girls to expect the same for themselves.  And I want more for them than that. I want them to feel that their careers are of equal value to their partners’. That they don’t have to fit their career in around everybody else. That their needs and hopes and desires are just as important as everyone else’s. I feel it’s my job as a mother to lead by example, especially now my daughters are coming into adulthood.

Your book will hopefully go some way to giving younger girls the confidence to be different.

It’s a very small step. We are talking about two, three and four-year-old children. It’s very young and what we are saying in Girls Can Do Anything is a small drop in a large ocean. But I hope it will open children’s eyes a bit and encourage parents and carers to think about how we depict girls, boys, women and men in society. One of things that inspired me was a video on YouTube where they asked kids to draw a firefighter, an astronaut and a police offer. And they all drew men. Then they brought in three people who actually do these jobs, wearing full uniform, When they removed their helmets to reveal that they were all women, the children] couldn’t believe it – it had such an impact.

That’s why, in my view, books like Girls Can Do Anything are so important.

Girls Can Do Anything by Caryl Hart and Ali Pye is out now. £6.99 (paperback), Scholastic. You can find out more about Caryl’s books and events at carylhart.com

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