Together We Can: An interview with Caryl Hart

Caryl Hart, the author of Girls Can Do Anything, joins Sarah Farrell in the Reading Realm today to chat books, writing rhymes and her new book Together We Can

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Together We Can is written by Caryl Hart, illustrated by Ali Pye and published by Scholastic. You can find out more about the book here!

I love how ‘Together We Can’ celebrates diversity and inclusion so well! What made you decide to write a book on that topic?

I’ve been asking publishers to include a diverse range of characters in my books for several years, ever since I came across Inclusive Minds at an event I was part of in London. They showed me how important it is for children to see themselves in books. Since then I’ve requested, cajoled, begged and prodded every editor, designer and illustrator I’ve worked with to include main and secondary characters with different skin tones, hair type and gender and more recently characters with prosthetics, mobility aids and those with cognitive and physical difference.

Over the years I’ve become more and more convinced of the importance of representing diversity in children’s books. The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) published a report last year that officially quantified what some of us already knew. That less than 1% of children’s books had a main character of black, asian or other minority background, even though around 14% of our population is made up of these groups.

Hate crime was up 17% in 2017/18, with over 94,000 reported crimes motivated by hostility or prejudice towards a person based on personal characteristics. 76% of these were race related.

These are appalling statistics and I strongly believe that we urgently need to take action to improve empathy, compassion, tolerance and understanding if we are to maintain harmony in our communities and across the world.

Together We Can, and its partner Girls Can Do Anything, are two books that I hope can help address these issues at the youngest level, helping to normalise these perceived differences amongst our children, and help parents, carers and teachers to work with children to combat fear and resentment and instead encourage acceptance and joy in the rich diversity that is present in so many of our communities.

Ali Pye’s illustrations are absolutely gorgeous! How did you feel when you first saw them?

Obviously I was extremely grateful, excited and happy that Scholastic had found someone who could create such amazing images of what I had inside my head! Illustrating Together We Can and Girls Can Do Anything has been a monumental achievement. Ali Pye has created over 140 different characters in each book, which is enough to make most illustrators quake in their boots! Each character has so much personality that every single one could have a book of their own. I am awed by Ali’s skills and humbled by her commitment.

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Although ‘Together We Can’ is targeted as being a book for younger children, the messages in it can certainly be used for children of all ages. How would you see it being used across primary school?

I’ve already read the book to a group of year 2 children in school – just to see how they would react. And, honestly, I nearly cried! After a couple of pages they’d jumped up from their orderly rows and were crowded around me to get a closer look at the illustrations, jostling to pick out which child was most like themselves. To my utter surprise and immense joy, they ignored gender and appearance and chose purely on the basis of the activities the characters were engaged in. So that was proof perfect to me that children do not naturally judge and discriminate. It’s something they learn as they grow up.

I’ve read Girls Can Do Anything to children up to 10 years old and had great feedback from them all so I’m confident that Together We Can will appeal to children of primary school age.

We’re in the process of developing teaching resources to accompany the book. To get a taster of what these might be like, check out the fab resources we have for Girls Can Do Anything here!

I’m always a fan of books written with a rhyming structure and a strong rhythm! How do you approach writing a rhyming book?

Some books simply refuse to come out in prose no matter how hard I try, while others don’t want to be written in rhyme! When writing in rhyme, I usually start with the rhythm and the rest follows. There’s a huge amount of chopping and changing to be done when writing in verse. It’s tricky to say what you want to say within the rigid structure of your rhythm – and make it rhyme as well! If I write two verses in a day, I’m pretty happy, so it’s slow going, but hugely satisfying when it works. Until, that is, your editor asks for a change – then quite often I have to start from scratch with that verse and write it again! That’s the reality of a writer’s world!

‘Together We Can’ covers many different aspects of friendship, including the different types of friend, how to make friends and how to be a good friend. What is the main message that you’d like readers to take away from reading it?

I think I want readers to know that most people are actually really, really nice once you get to know them and that the best way to make friends is by being a friend.

As well as writing books based in modern reality, such as ‘Together We Can’ and ‘Girls Can Do Anything’, you’ve written children’s books on many different topics, from aliens and pirate to dinosaurs and superheroes. What has been your favourite book to write and why?

Oh gosh, that’s such a difficult question! It’s like asking a parent who their favourite child is! At the moment I’m totally in love with When a Dragon Comes to Stay, illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw and published by Nosy Crow, because Ros has created the most adorable characters! I’m super-proud of our retelling of Peter Pan, illustrated by Sarah Warburton, and also published by Nosy Crow as it was a hugely difficult book to write and the illustrations are incredible. Also I’d have to say my Albie series, illustrated by Ed Eaves, which has sold over 250,000 copies to date. Oh, and my new series of Knock Knock books with Nick East because they are so whacky and silly! Oh and….

See what I mean?

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You’ve mentioned before that your musical background has had an impact on your writing style, particularly the rhyming. How? Do you still play any instruments?

Ha! Not really. I’m much too busy to practise at the moment. I spend most of my spare time out walking or at the gym. But I’d love to turn my classical violin training into fiddle playing and fancy myself playing the cello so you never know. Maybe if I ever retire.

One page of the book that I particularly enjoyed was about pets being friends too! Do you tend to have lots of four-legged friends?

I have a dog and a cat and my children have persuaded us to get all sorts of pets over the years. We even had a lamb once that lived in our house and a baby blackbird that we reared. My daughter was always finding stray dogs and bringing them home. But really, I wanted to include pets in the book because some children struggle to relate to people and find pets a huge comfort and source of happiness. So the references to animals as friends was for them really. I also wanted to acknowledge that not everyone is able to have what we would think of as a traditional pet, so I included insects as well. When I was a child I was so desperate for a pet, that I collected snails and made a home for them! I still love snails, by the way, even when they’re eating my lettuces.

I liked the way that you have presented potential barriers to friendship (such as distance, language and disability) in such a positive way and how you’ve used such a wide variety of different types of friendships as examples. Did you use any inspiration from your own life and friendships when writing this book?

I wanted to move away from the typical stereotype that a friend is someone the same as you. I think it’s really important, in this climate of fear and suspicion, that children see everyone in their community as potential friends. Obviously there has to be a high level of safeguarding when it comes to children getting involved with adults they don’t know, but as far as making friends with other children, I wanted to make the point that friends come in all shapes and sizes and from lots of different places.

I grew up in an area that was predominantly white. There were two black children in my school, both of whom were in foster care. All my friends were white. All my parent’s friends were white, not because this was a conscious choice, but because there were very few non-white people in our community.

So growing up, I never encountered anyone who didn’t look like me, or have a very similar home life to the one I had. I knew one boy with brittle bones and he was the only person I ever came across who was physically different from me. As an adult, I was shocked by how this affected my unconscious attitudes and I spent a lot of time in my twenties trying to erase my feelings of discomfort in this respect. Now I live in a very diverse community in Sheffield and work with lots of children in schools from a wide range of backgrounds, and I still find myself worrying about how to talk and what to say and being super-conscious not to offend anyone.

But the more I look at difference, the more convinced I become that people are really basically the same. It’s so easy to judge people by what they look like, or the circumstances of their lives, but scrape just a little below the surface and you will find that we all really want the same things and have the same worries and concerns.

The vast majority of us want to be understood and accepted for who we are. We want to be liked, and ideally loved. We want to feel appreciated and acknowledged. We want to have equality of opportunity and aspiration. We want to have hope, and to dream and to spend time with people we care about and who care about us. Our similarities far outweigh our differences and it is this belief that drives me to create books like Together We Can.

I hope that through my books, and my work in schools and libraries, that in some small way, I help the next generation feel that diversity is normal. That we are all different and all the same too.

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Find out more about Ali Pye here!

I read on your website that you will have published more than 50 books by 2020 and aim to write at least 100 in your life time! What project are you currently working on?

Taking a project from development to publication takes a long time and there are lots of stages to go through before the book arrives on the shelves, so I’m always working on several things at once. Here’s what I’m up to at the moment:

I’ve just approved rough illustrations for a picture book that is second in a series and am starting to think about book 3. I’m drafting book 11 in the Albie series for Simon and Schuster

I’m also awaiting editorial comments for book 2 in a new preschool series out next year and a non fiction rhyming picture book out in 2021. I’ve recently gained a new contract for a new picture book I first wrote in rhyme but redrafted in prose.

I’ve also got a few book proposals out there that I’m hoping to get deals for, and am working with Tameside Libraries to plan the third year of a project in which we create picture books with young families.

Oh, and I’ve written a teen novel which I’m doing final edits on before it goes out to publishers.

Thanks for taking the time to speak to me about Together We Can and my work in general!

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