Is it ever TOO EARLY to empower girls? Is the key to helping achieve a higher level of female confidence, in fact in inspiring them through storytelling in their youngest formative years? Author Caryl Hart certainly believes so. We’ve been chatting to the bestselling children’s author about her obsession with reading, her passion for literature, and her desire to positively influence all girls, through her new book, Girls Can Do Anything.
Did you always have a fascination for books?
I’ve always been a reader and books have always been a part of my life. Growing up, I think I just took books for granted. I assumed until I was quite grown up, that everyone had books in their house. However, my work in schools over the past 10 years has shown me that this is, sadly, not the case. It’s only now that I realise what a gift my parents gave me.
Tell us about your journey into becoming a published author?
I started trying to write children’s books when my eldest daughter was around a year old, She’s 19 now, so it was a while ago!
We had a great library quite close to our house, so we went there a lot and always borrowed the maximum number of books each time.
Getting back into reading in this way was a delight and we spent many happy hours buried under piles of picture books, both at the library and at home. Most of what we read was great, but I remember one day reading a couple of books that I felt were pretty poor.
On returning home, I told my husband that I reckoned I could do better. He said, “Go on then!” and that’s what got me started. I had no idea whether I was good enough, but, like many new parents, I decided to give it a go.
Surely it must have been difficult to achieve success in such a competitive field?
I meet lots of parents and teachers who say they’ve written one or more children’s books but most will never get as far as publication because it’s a very difficult industry to get into and the road to publication is not an easy one. It’s highly competitive and new authors need to really shine if they are going to get noticed.
I had some nice one-line rejections from a few publishers, but didn’t really get anywhere initially.
So you almost gave up?
I went back to work part time and life took over, but the desire to write still nagged at me, so after my second child was born in 2002, I had another go.
Roll on five years and I got very ill and had to leave my job. I slept for about 3 months then decided that it was now or never.
I finally had the space and time to really think about writing. We agreed as a family that we’d give it a year – and if I didn’t make it to publication, I’d go back to work.
I did NOT want to go back to a regular job so I guess I just gave it my all. I went to the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy and tried to meet people and find out more. Six months later I had an agent and a year after that my first book was published.
It sounds like it was a great deal tougher than you’d first expected?
Let’s just say it was a very steep learning curve.
Because the industry is so competitive, it’s really difficult to get advice on how to get a foot in the door. At least it was when I was starting out.
Twitter hadn’t been invented yet so there was no practical way to talk to people in the industry. I didn’t know any authors or writers and had literally no idea how to go about it. I didn’t know who to contact at a publisher, or how to submit a manuscript or what publishers were looking for. I had no idea what sort of standard my work needed to be.
It was when I moved house and met a someone who was creating and publishing picture books that things began to move for me. She advised me to go to Bologna and the rest is history!
And about Girls Can Do Anything, what spurred the idea?
I think it was a combination of several things all coming together that made me want to write the book.
Growing up, I was viewed as a tomboy. I liked being outdoors and building dens and grubbing around in ponds looking for caddis fly larvae. I liked riding my bike and swimming and having adventures.
At that time, these things were not considered feminine. I hated wearing skirts and dresses because they got in the way. I found girls’ shoes tight and uncomfortable and they didn’t keep my feet warm or dry in winter.
Everything I viewed as “girly” seemed ridiculous and stupid to me. I had no female role-models and couldn’t see anything remotely interesting about being female. I knew I was a girl, but I didn’t WANT to be one.
My parents were fully supportive and encouraged me to follow my interests, They told me I could do and be anything I wanted. And I believed them. But I felt that being female made my interests and ambitions a bit weird and unusual and it made me uncomfortable in my own skin. My parents told me that I could do anything, but society and the media told me otherwise.
So the views of your parents, and your own childhood as a tomboy were an influencing factor. What happened to bring those experiences to the front of your mind?
Sometime in 2015 I read a post by A Mighty Girl titled: Girls are not Tomboys, they are Girls by Sharon Suchoval
Sharon’s full article is here
It basically says that girls who like doing the things I liked are STILL girls! They are not tomboys or half-boys or less-than-girls. They are girls.
And it had quite an effect on me. Growing up I never felt like a proper girl. As an adult I felt that I was somehow lacking because I am not particularly feminine. I rarely wear makeup or dresses or dainty shoes. I have never owned a pair of heels and find the idea of disabling yourself in this way ridiculous.
But here was an article telling me I AM a proper female, just one who likes doing particular things. It was a complete revelation to me!
You were also influenced by the Olympics, of all things?
Yes – the promotional campaign for the 2016 olympics and paralympics, where disabled athletes were, I think for the first time, being portrayed as something greater than rather than less than.
They were the Superhumans, who had to work harder than able bodied people to achieve their dreams. This change of emphasis also had a big impact on me.
Here’s the video:
Then there was the wonderful This Girl Can campaign from Sport England. which represented pure joy to me. At last we had a celebration of femininity that was not about frilly skirts and makeup. It was about grit and strength, achievement and drive. Here were women with wobbly bits and babies who were strong, aggressive, capable and in control of their lives. I felt for the first time ever that I had role models and these were them.
It was around this time that we watched the movie Interstellar. In one scene, we are on the command deck of the spaceship and I suddenly realised that there were the same number of women and men, in a film where some of the main roles were played by women. And the fact that I noticed it, kind of worried me. Surely this wasn’t new. Surely in 2016 we’d been seeing equal numbers of women and men in positions of power on our screens? But I couldn’t think that I HAD seen this before. This WAS unusual as far as I could see.
I think together all these things created a welling-up inside me and gave me the desire to talk to young children. To tell them that we can be who we want to be. That being a girl is JUST AS GOOD as being a boy. That there are many different ways to express our female-ness and that girls and women should not feel less-than if they don’t fit the stereotype.
Is it enough though, just to ‘tell girls’ that they can achieve anything?
No. I didn’t just want to tell children that girls can do anything they choose, just as boys can. I wanted to give them evidence. The evidence that I hadn’t had as a child. That’s why I included a gallery of inspirational women. To prove to children that we were speaking the truth.
When did you start working on it?
I wrote my first draft in February 2016. The book was acquired by Scholastic in July 2016.
Did you learn things about yourself in the process?
I think most of the learning came in the run up to writing, and in the creation of the gallery of inspirational women which is featured on the back end papers of the book.
I think the thing that struck me most was the realisation that, as an adult, I still lacked positive female role models. Every child knows about Marie Curie, and Florence Nightingale, but really, I was sick of hearing the same old names.
Surely there must be more than a handful of women who had actually done things! So I set out to find contemporary women who are doing things now, as well as historical figures who many children (and adults) may not have heard about.
It must have been hard to know what to chop?
I had many, many discussions with my husband, my kids and my editor about who to include and who to leave out. The process was hugely interesting because I had to challenge all my own assumptions.
example, in the book, we tell children that girls can be builders. Yet I had never, ever encountered a female builder. Interior designers? Yes. Architects? Yes. But actual bricks and mortar builders? Never!
So I found one and we put her in the back of the book. And I also felt it was important to include what we might think of as “ordinary” people in the gallery. I wanted children to know that they don’t have to be the best in the world, or the first one to do something to be successful and to feel they have value. I wanted them to know that they can be extraordinarily ordinary too. That success is about being the best you can be and living your best life rather than being better than anyone else.
Do you fear for young girls and women growing up now?
I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think girls and women are any more vulnerable now than they have been throughout history. But I do think life is more challenging for teenagers now than ever before.
There is no escape from the joys of social media and it’s putting enormous pressure on our teens – girls AND boys. There is no down-time and the content, images and ideas they are subject to is mind-blowing.
At 12 and 13, children are exposed to all levels of pornography, self-harm, suicide, body shaming, and unrealistic expectations in a way that my generation never was. But the flip side is that, in my experience, children have become much more broad-minded and tolerant of difference.
My children think nothing of a person being gay, or transgender or disabled, or autistic or whatever. I think this is because they encounter people from all parts of society on social media. They read their stories and get to appreciate them as human beings. This, for me, is the amazingly positive thing that the explosion of social media has brought.
How did the collaboration with your illustrator for Girls Can Do Anything coming about?
It’s almost always the publisher who brings author and illustrator together and this project was no different. Ali Pye has done a stunning job with the book – her role has been extremely important and challenging because I was very keen that the book was inclusive.
I wanted every child to be able to find themselves within the pages. So Ali had to include a variety of skin tones, hair colour, disability, body type etc, which I’m sure was incredibly difficult!
What’s the take-home message you want all parents and children to take from this book?
That your gender does not dictate who you are and what you can achieve.
What tips do you have for aspiring authors?
Set your bar high. If you have something to say, don’t give up, but do listen to advice from people who know what they are talking about. Creating a book is a team effort and as an author you will be one part of this team. Be ready to change and adapt your work to fit your publishers needs.
What next for you? Anything you can exclusively share with us?
Well, Ali is working on book two of the series as we speak, and I’m in discussion with Scholastic about a third book, which is all very exciting! I’m also very, very keen to write a book about boys, so watch this space.
I’ve got lots of other projects on the go too – some preschool books, a young adult novel and several other picture books so there’s lots more to come. I’m also working on a multilingual literacy project in Sheffield and a literacy and social mobility project in Tameside, so there’s quite a bit going on.