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Caryl Hart speaks to Picture Book Snob

Best-selling and award-winning writer Caryl Hart is one of our absolute favourite authors. Since her first book, Don’t Dip Your Chips in Your Drink, Kate! released in 2009, Caryl has published over fifty children's titles. Caryl's enormous body of work includes, rhyming stories, feminist fairy tales, explorations of every day life, elaborate adventures, and retellings of classics.

Caryl's stories can take readers on epic journeys through space and time, with a broad range of creature such as aliens, dinosaurs and monsters. Some are silly and some are serious, some are short and some are long, but every story places an emphasis on kindness and promotes creativity. Each book celebrates the imagination in its own way and champions equality and diversity. We were delighted to interview Caryl as part of the blog tour for Mini Monsters: Can I Be the Best?...

Caryl Hart
Caryl Hart

Can I Be The Best? is the second Mini Monsters book – are there many more planned?

I’m very much hoping so! But we have to wait and see how the first two books go before committing to any more.

How did you get the idea for the Mini Monsters series?

I was inspired to create some stories about the challenges children face in preschool after watching Channel 4's Secret Life of 4 and 5-year-olds a few years ago. Watching these programmes made me realise how many emotions and tricky situations young children have to learn to navigate and cope with when they start getting to know new people. No wonder young children are exhausted at the end of the preschool day!

Can I Be The Best? shows children that everyone has a talent. What did you excel at when you were younger? Was there anything you longed to better at?

I was a hard worker as a child and was reasonably able academically. I started violin lessons at 4 years old and made it into the county youth orchestra by the time I was around 12 or 13. I passed grade 8 at 14. So looking back I was pretty good, but it was a pretty competitive arena and I never really felt that I was good enough, which is a shame.

There are so many things I long to be better at!

When I was younger, I wanted to be good at sports and was quite a good swimmer. But individual sports weren’t valued at my schools and only the top players were supported to any extent in team sports, so the message I got for a long time was, “you’re rubbish, don’t bother.” I only really realised sport was for me in my late 20s when I discovered non-competitive fitness – ie going to the gym. Suddenly I could enjoy physical exercise without that awful feeling of being the last one to be picked! I’d also love to be better at playing the piano, singing, doing hair and makeup and choosing clothes!

Mini Monsters Can I Play? by Caryl Hart & Tony Neal, Simon & Schuster.
Can I Be The Best? illustrated by Tony Neal

The Mini Monsters have so many characteristics in common with young children – are they based on anyone in particular?

They’re not based on anyone in particular though I do think it helps to find real people to model your characters on where you can.

The Mini Monsters all have distinct personalities – which Mini Monster do you most resemble?

Ah that’s a good question. I think I’m a lot like all of them in different ways. Sparkle is assertive and proactive – which I am a lot of the time. Scout is enthusiastic, which is also me. Arthur is thoughtful and loves nature – I have a science and conservation background so love nature too… though only other people will be able to tell you if I’m thoughtful – I do try to be. The only one I think I don’t share many characteristics with is Tiny, who is non-verbal and very funny. I talk a lot so I think I am like Tiny the least!

Arthur loves insects. Are you interested in entomology and have you ever built an insect house yourself?

I used to work for the environment agency and then for the peak district national park so I have a background in ecology and conservation. I haven’t actually built an insect house myself but have worked with others who have. I’m pretty good with insects on the whole, though have been known to get the eeby-jeebies with big house spiders. But I’m a trapper-and-freer and never a squasher!

Mini Monster Arthur, illustrated by Tony Neal

We adore Tiny and even though he/she (not sure of gender or if they have one!) doesn’t say anything in either story, my kids enjoy seeing what they are up to and find Tiny very amusing. Are there any plans to put Tiny centre-stage in a future Mini Monsters book?

The plan is for each Mini Monster to have a story that focuses on them, so hopefully if the series goes well, Tiny should take the spotlight soon!

I love Tony Neal’s bright and cheerful illustrations and he has made the Mini Monsters so cute. It must have been exciting to see his initial artwork when you were working on Can I Play? Did you collaborate with Tony closely on how the Mini Monsters would look or was he given free reign? How did it feel to see Tiny, Scout, Arthur and Sparkle for the first time?

We actually spent a lot of time getting the look of the characters just right. Poor Tony had to do a good many iterations before we were all happy with the final design, but I’m super pleased with how they’ve turned out.

The Mini Monsters gently demonstrate how to play together and interact with consideration and kindness. I found it amusing that the Mini Monsters are in preschool as children can sometimes be beastly towards one another at that age. Have you any memories of monstrous behaviour by yourself or other children when you were in preschool?

I don’t remember very much about preschool other than doing road safety with Billy Beacon and being disappointed that there wasn’t a little bed I could sleep in when I was tired! I’m sure I did behave monstrously at times, but the mind has a habit of blocking out one’s own misdemeanors!

More monster books by Caryl Hart
More monster-themed books by Caryl Hart

Apart from the Mini Monsters, you’ve also created How to Win a Monster Race, There’s a Monster in My Fridge and The Beast of Bramble Woods. Are you a big fan of monsters and do you have any favourite monsters or monster books by other authors?

Haha! That’s a very good question! In fact, my initial concept for the Mini Monsters was to have them as baby dinosaurs as at the time I was developing the stories, there didn’t seem to be any preschool dinosaurs around. But then Rob Biddulph published Dinosaur Juniors so that particular slot was taken!

I don’t personally have a particular affinity with monsters but the advantage of using made-up characters is that you can avoid potential stereotyping. Once we decided on monsters, I actually loved the metaphor – that we all have mini monsters inside of us, so it seemed rather neat to choose this theme.

Meet the Oceans releases in March. There’s a new When a Dragon... story due in May and a new Albie adventure, How to Track a Sabre-Toothed Tiger coming in August. Can you tell us a little about these books and have you any other upcoming projects that you can talk about?

I’m so excited about Meet the Oceans – the first book in this series, Meet the Planets has been really well-received and Bethan Woollvin’s illustrations are outstanding. The artwork for Meet the Oceans is incredible so I can’t wait to show the world this book.

The next When a Dragon… story is the third book in this series and was inspired by one of the roughs Rosalind Beardshaw drew for When a Dragon Goes to School.

Book three is When a Dragon Meets a Baby – so, if you think the little dragon in the first two books is cute, just wait and see book three!

Caryl Hart books releasing in 2021

I also have another preschool picture book out in April – it’s the first in a brand new series with Bloomsbury, illustrated by the super talented Zachariah Ohora, and is called Sonny Says, "MINE!" Zach’s illustrations are super-cute and the book is a little bit younger than the Mini Monsters series, and is full of humour.

My last book scheduled for publication this year is, as you say, How to Track a Sabre-Toothed Tiger. This is the 11th Albie book and in this story, Albie is whisked back in time to the stone age. Here he meets a girl called Thorn and her kitten, Claw. When Claw escapes, the two friends follow different types of animal tracks trying to find him. There are lots of historical details in the story for children to find and Ed Eaves has included lots of adorable prehistoric animals so I think Albie fans will love it!

Knock-Knock Alien was the most-borrowed library book of all the ones you’ve written in 2020! Were you surprised at this? Do you have your own favourite title from this series and if so, which one is it?

It was great to learn that this was my most borrowed title last year! Knock Knock Dinosaur was top of the list for two years previously and Knock Knock Pirate was second, so I knew this series was popular. But it’s very gratifying to see the newest book doing so well! Sometimes series’ can lose their momentum and later books might not be as good as earlier ones, but this series seems to be going from strength to strength.

My personal favourite is Knock Knock Pirate as I love love love Nick East’s illustrations and it’s the sort of adventure I’d like to go on myself!

Animals feature as characters in lots of your books with even rats and mice being celebrated. Do you have a favourite animal and what's your favourite fictional beast?

My favourite animal would probably be a tiger because they’re so beautiful. For my favourite fictional best I’ll go with dragons because I’d love to ride one!

Knock Knock Alien, illustrated by Nick East

We're massive fans of the When a Dragon... series. What gave you the idea of a dragon coming to stay?

The concept for this series actually came from Nosy Crow – they asked if I’d like to write a book about a dragon coming to stay with the refrain, “Why no, dragons don’t do that!” Of course I said yes as it sounded so adorable. I can tell you that I’m in the process of writing two more stories in this series too which is amazing.

We’ve just discovered the Albie series and my two girls LOVE Albie and how these books turn mundane everyday events and activities into exciting and surprising adventures. Was your own childhood similar to Albie's - did you use your imagination to transform boring tasks when you were young yourself and then when your own children were little?

I’m so glad you’re loving these stories! I had a great childhood and growing up, my parents often referred to our games and outings as adventures. They were very hands-on and we did lots of activities together including long bike rides, building dens and exploring. They were very child-centric in the way they brought us up, giving us the power to make decisions and encouraging us to challenge ourselves work things out for ourselves.

As parents ourselves, we have always tried to do this for our own children and definitely used imaginative play to help make everyday activities exciting. We are the kind of parents who expect our (now adult) children to take responsibility for their own learning and life choices, and tried to encourage them to be independent thinkers. Hopefully it’s working out for them now they are young adults!

We love how the Albie books give a hint about his next adventure on their final pages and it’s such a clever idea. How did you think of this – was it inspired by anything in particular?

The first book, Supermarket Zoo was written as a stand-alone very early on in my career. In fact it was one of the first books I ever got published. The following year I wrote How to Grow a Dinosaur and sent it to my editor at Simon and Schuster to see if she thought it might be a suitable second story for Albie. Luckily for me, she loved it and the series was born.

The idea of having a clue at the end of each story evolved from the second shopping list at the back of Supermarket Zoo and from seeing Ed Eaves’ rough illustration at the end of How to Grow a Dinosaur. His illustration inspired me to create Welcome to Alien School and the rest followed on from there.

The Albie collection, illustrated by Ed Eaves

The Princess and the Shoe is one of my family’s favourite books. Did you hate wearing dresses when you were a little girl and were you interested in running just like Jasmine?

Oh my god yes! I was a very physical child and loved scrambling about, riding my bike and climbing trees so dresses were a total no-no for me – completely impractical and altogether silly. I hated them.

I only got into running in my early thirties. Before that I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go for a jog – it seemed like a ridiculous thing to do! But when my youngest started school, I met a group of mums who were planning to do the three peaks challenge and were running every week in training. I missed a few weeks at the start so my first ever run was 4 miles, and I was actually very surprised that I could not only do it, but actually quite enjoyed myself. I’ve been a keen runner ever since though I have also struggled with knee problems, I think as a result of starting so late.

The theme of kindness and showing compassion for others is prominent in your work, is this something that you strive to do in your everyday life?

Yes of course. I try to view every person I encounter with compassion and empathy. I think as humans it’s the most basic and important tool we have.

Your work is very inclusive, with lots of diversity among the main characters and you frequently challenge gender stereotypes. Is this something that’s very important to you?

I’m glad you think so! I work really hard to challenge my own thinking when I’m writing and am think very carefully about the language I use to hopefully ensure I don’t perpetuate stereotypical thinking. I firmly believe that all children need and deserve to find versions of themselves and characters they can identify with between the pages of the books they read. I think creating diverse books is essential for community cohesion and to help create a society of kind, generous, caring people who embrace difference rather than fearing it.

The Chinese edition of Meet the Planets

I read recently that you have a background in science. Did you face resistance during your career because of your gender and is this why many of your books not only promote women in STEM but also demonstrate to girls that “there’s no end to the things” they can do?

My parents encouraged me to pursue a scientific career because during the ‘80s when I was at school, industries were actively looking to increase the number of women in science so the job prospects were fairly favourable. I can’t say I have experienced much discrimination in the work place because of my gender but I certainly was not taken as seriously as my male counterparts in some of the roles I had in my early career.

But I did lack positive female role models growing up. All of our history lessons focussed on the actions of men, all the scientists we heard about were men. All the women I knew and every woman I had ever heard of, were treated as secondary to their male colleagues.

So I genuinely believed that women were less important and less interesting and quite frankly, I was not happy about being female!

What I didn’t know was that women have always been great achievers and have had a huge influence on our society, but that they have been deliberately side-lined, ignored and belittled by men on power. I feel I have a duty to show children (and their families) women have had and continue to have, a very significant role in shaping our society and furthering our development as a species.

From Girls Can Do Anything, illustrated by Ali Pye

You’ve been writing picture books for over ten years now. Has the market changed much since your first book was published?

Books have definitely becoming more inclusive and diverse over the past few years, which is great to see. When I started my career, I was told by one publisher that I couldn’t have a female main character because boys would not read a book with a female lead. We now know that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy as females were routinely given passive, boring roles in literature, so no wonder they were less popular!

We are also seeing better representation of cultural diversity in our children’s books – which is brilliant. Though I still think there’s a long way to go, we’re definitely on the right trajectory.

I’ve also seen an explosion of amazing fact books in recent years. Beautiful large format, fully illustrated titles, and fact books with narrative, which is great! I used to hate “non-fiction” – even the term non-fiction is negative! I used to find them turgid and boring but not any more! My goodness, there are some stunning fact books out there now!

I thought I was familiar with most of your work, but when researching for this interview, I was amazed to discover you’ve created so many different characters and written so many books for such a wide variety of age groups, and in so many different styles! How do you decide what type of book to work on next? Do you run with whatever idea happens to pop into your head or do you have a series or style in mind and then try to come up with a story to fit it?

My work is a mixture of new material I’ve dreamed up myself and books that I’m asked to write by publishers, so I don’t generate all the ideas by myself. But for new material I originate it is pretty much as you’ve described. An idea will pop into my head fully formed, or develop and grow over time in the back of my mind. What pops up can be totally random, or it can be influenced by my current reading and interests.

When a Dragon Comes to Stay, illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw

When your first book, Don’t Dip Your Chips in Your Drink, Kate!, was published in 2009, had you any idea that you would become so prolific?

Not a clue! At that time, I didn’t know if I was good enough and would have been pretty intimidated if I’d been told I would publish over 50 books in the coming ten years. I’m so very grateful to everyone I’ve been lucky enough to work with, and to all the families, schools, carers, grandparents and friends who have bought my books for their children. I still grin from ear to ear when someone messages me to say how much they like something I’ve written, it’s such a massive privilege to feel that I’ve helped create something that has significance in other people’s family lives.

Have you had any stories rejected and did you ever become discouraged?

Of course, many of my stories are rejected, some multiple times - and some stories that I think are really good have never made it to publication. But that’s just part of the process. It’s a very competitive industry so every writer deals with rejection all the time. It’s just part of what we do!

You’ve worked with so many amazing illustrators, do you have one in mind when writing a story, or does your publisher decide on who to pair you with once you have submitted it?

Books in a series are obviously illustrated by the same person. And some commissioned projects already have an illustrator in place. For everything else, my publishers will suggest an illustrator they have in mind. Usually I’ll get to see their portfolio or a sample and can say whether or not I want to work with them. I have hardly ever said no because any illustrator who has made it onto an editor’s radar is likely to be very, very good at what they do.

Don’t Dip Your Chips in Your Drink, Kate! illustrated by Leigh Hodgkinson

Are there any illustrators with whom you haven’t yet collaborated but would love to work with?

So many! I’d love to work with Yuval Zommer and Britta Tekentrup to think of just two. Luckily for me, I have some new project lined up with some new, super-amazing illustrators so there’s lots to look forward to!

You write some books in rhyme and others in prose. What makes you decide on the format? Is this something you have decided from the outset or do you just start to write and see which works best as the story develops?

When an idea for a book comes to me, it usually comes in either prose or rhyme. A rhyming book will usually start life as a phrase or verse, whereas a prose book might start as more of a story arc. I do have books that I’ve created in rhyme that I’ve re-written in prose on request of an editor so it’s not always totally fixed. Creating books is an organic process and there’s a lot of team work involved. Publishers have their own take on how they feel a book will work best, so part of the job is to adapt my material to fit their vision.

Rhyming is notoriously difficult to get right, yet you make it look easy! Had you a background or experience as a songwriter or poet before writing picture books?

I loved reading rhyming poetry as a child and I have a musical background so rhythm is something that is deeply embedded in my brain. For me, it’s the rhythm that actually drives a rhyming text rather than the rhymes themselves.

A gift edition of Peter Pan, retold by Caryl Hart and illustrated by Sarah Warburton, Nosy Crow
Peter Pan, retold by Caryl Hart and illustrated by Sarah Warburton

You recently published a retelling of Peter Pan with Sarah Warburton. Was this a challenging project and are you planning to adapt any more classics?

Peter Pan was a HUUUUGE challenge! It’s the most difficult book I’ve ever written and probably the one I’m most proud of. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the original novel, but it’s actually quite challenging and is very old fashioned in it’s treatment of gender and culture.

Luckily I had a lot of help from my editor at Nosy Crow with it as it was a monumental task and took many, many re-writes to get it right. But I do think it’s turned out really well, mainly due to Sarah Warburton’s stunning illustrations.

I am actually working on a classic retelling right now, with a new publisher – and a very talented illustrator, which is super-exciting!

Are you a perfectionist and do you find it difficult to sign off on a project?

I keep working and reworking a text until I feel it’s just right. This can take a long time, especially with a rhyming book. I think I just get to a point where it feels right, which is when I’ll submit it, so for me, this is the easy bit. What can be very challenging is when the editor I’m working with is not as convinced as I am! Going back in and making changes can be a far more challenging process! There can be a lot of too-ing and fro-ing with a text before everyone is happy, so when we get to this point the feeling is largely one of relief!

Your books are so informative and yet so much fun at the same time. Is it difficult to strike this balance or is it something that comes naturally to you?

That’s not really for me to say! Only my readers can judge whether I do this successfully or not, but if you think it, then I’ll take your word for it.

Caryl with The Princess and the Shoe, illustrated by Sarah Warburton

You have an extraordinary ability to relate to children. Have you a background in education and/or working with the very young?

I don’t have any training, either as a teacher or a writer. My dad was a primary teacher and headteacher so I guess I heard a lot about school from him. I do think I am an educator at heart and my roles at the Environment Agency and the Peak District National Park had a big educational role so I do think its something I’m drawn to.

I was astonished by how many activity sheets you’ve created for your books and how elaborate and interesting they are. Is this something you spend a lot of time on?

Thanks! Yes, I do spend a lot of time on these – I do a lot of school visits so use the materials I create to help encourage and inspire children to create their own stories. I like to think that creating activities adds value to my stories and helps schools and families to make the most of my books.

I conceive, design and create the majority of activities myself, though some publishers will lend a hand with design. Scholastic created some fantastic lesson plans for Girls Can do Anything and Bloomsbury also created some wonderful teaching resources for Big Box Little Box. I have also worked with Zoe Toft from @playbythebook for several years when I was too busy to do them by myself.

Some of the free activities available from Caryl's website

You blog about and review children’s books as well as writing them. What would you say are the most under-rated books of the last few years and/or the ones that you think deserve a wider-readership/more prominence?

Gosh that’s tricky. I don’t think I really know which books are underrated or overrated! I only know what I like and what I’m not so keen on.

It’s been interesting to discover how many people are self publishing children’s books these days though. I haven’t seen any that I am in love with yet, but it’s great that so many people are inspired to write and that there are mechanisms for them to get their work out there.

What’s the best review you’ve ever gotten from a child about your own work?

I’m often contacted by parents who tell me their child has demanded one of my books every night for several weeks. You can’t get better than that can you?

What were your favourite books to read with your children when they were younger?

We loved Shirley Hughes – both her stories and her poems. One of our favourite books was Out and About, which is a book of seasonal poems. My daughter knew several of these by heart when she was three.

Caryl's favourite book to read to her own children

Are there any particular books and authors that have inspired your work?

I’m hugely inspired by the amazing illustrated fact books I’m seeing and only wish I could write something magnificent like them. Maybe one day I will!

I know your own children are quite grown up by now but do they give you feedback on your works in progress and do they have any favourite books and characters of yours?

They’re very good at humouring me when I show them something new that I’m excited about, which is nice. Even though they are 21 and 18, they might still sit on my knee from time to time and read me something that’s new or in progress.

What’s the funniest/strangest/most unusual thing that’s happened to you in your career as writer (apart from a pandemic)?

I was approached by a company to work on some marketing materials for school milk and ended up directing a video involving two eight year old children at a working dairy. I had absolutely no skills in this field but it was fun to do. We also created the Cool Milk Show which was supposed to tour schools but I don’t know if it ever did!

Have you made any mistakes during your writing career and if so, what did you learn from them?

Oh loads. Of course. Making mistakes is part of the creative process. But probably the most important thing I’ve learned is to not allow anyone to refill my glass at publishers’ parties.

Bears Love Squares, illustrated by Edward Underwood

Do you have any advice for aspiring picture book authors and illustrators?

My best advice is to set your bar high. Few aspiring writers really appreciate how good their work has to be in order to be picked up by a commercial publisher. It’s common for people to pick the worst book they’ve ever read and think they only have to write something of that standard. But the truth is, children’s publishing is very demanding and competitive so only super super good texts will get a look-in, particularly if you have no track record. So make a good first impression.

Also, unless you’re a writer-illustrator it’s best to submit your story on its own without illustrations. If a publisher likes your text, they will have a vision for how they want the book to look. Poor or amateur illustrations can be very off-putting and one glace at a poorly illustrated manuscript could be enough to send your work to the trash pile.

Finally, I consider myself a picture book snob - is there anything you're snobby about?

I’d like to think I’m pretty down to earth and open minded, and I try to see merit in anything that other people are enthusiastic about, even if I don’t feel the same way. I may not always succeed at this, but it’s something I strive to do.

PS. Caryl's gallery of fans might be the most adorable thing I've ever seen online and I LOVE this gallery of inspirational women

Knock Knock Pirate illustrated by Nick East
Prince George and the Royal Potty, illustrated by Laura Ellen Anderson
Catch that Rat! illustrated by Tom McLaughlin
Let's Go to the Sea, illustrated by Lauren Tobia
Whiffy Wilson, the Wolf Who Wouldn't Go to Bed, illustrated by Leonie Lord


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