Chatting with Author Cerrie Burnell August 28, 2019 – Posted in: Book News
For parents with children of a certain age, you will probably know Cerrie Burnell from CBeebies where she was the first disabled presenter. Within a month of joining the BBC, there were complaints from parents that she was scaring their children (Cerrie was born with her arm missing below the elbow). Thankfully the BBC and many disability groups stood by her and she stayed for the next eight years.
Cerrie has now given up television and is pursuing her passion for children’s literature. Her first book Snowflakes was published in 2013 about a mixed-race girl from the city, sent to live with her grandmother in a magical village, and her series of Harper books have received worldwide acclaim. Her latest book, “The Girl with the Shark’s Teeth” is a magical adventure aimed at older readers.
When we spoke we talked about diversity, her love of stories, and how we can encourage kids to read more.
B of B: My daughter and I came to a reading you did of “The Girl with the Sharks Teeth” a few weeks ago in Brighton where you talked about your own journey with dyslexia and learning to read at the age of 10.
Can I ask you first of all what advice you would give to parents whose children have dyslexia, so that they can still benefit from the joy of stories?
C: Unfortunately reading in school has become very pressurized, but stories are eternal and were around long before they were ever written down so we need to try and make time for storytelling outside of school. So over the summer or during holidays just feed it in to life.
You know my mum always had a book on hand whether we were at the beach or at the park and she would just say, “Shall I read you a bit of that book?” So I loved the same books as my brother as she would read the same one to both of us.
Don’t be afraid to read the classics to your children too. They can be quite hard for children to read so they are more accessible when they are read aloud.
The thing about reading is that it’s not meant to be work and there are so many great writers out there like Cressida Cowell and Kiran Milwood Hargrave who wrote “The Girl of Ink and Stars” which is an amazing book.
We should also set an example – our kids are watching us all the time so maybe instead of watching the telly or picking up our phones we should pick up a book instead.
And offer to read to them. Not all kids need that but offer to read with them too.
B of B: You have talked openly about your desire to see more books about children who look like your daughter (Cerrie’s daughter is mixed race) and deal with diversity. What can publishers and others in the world of children’s books do to ensure greater representation not only of race, but also gender and disability?
C: It’s about the storyteller. If you change the storyteller, you change the story.
In publishing we need a broader range of writers. There are amazing publishers out there like Round Table Publishing doing great work but we need to encourage more writers from diverse backgrounds to step forward.
The “Own Voices” movement in America started by Corinne Duyvis has been great at inclusion and “The Hate You Give” by Angie Thomas is a brilliant book that deals with complicated race issues but we need to do more to ensure those voices are heard.
The reason I feel that I’m able to write about diversity in my books is because of my daughter. I want to put her in the story. It’s like the latest debate about having a black mermaid [Halle Bailey an African-American actor has been cast as Ariel in Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid unleashing a twitter storm]. I never wish more that someone would make a film of “The Girl with the Shark’s Teeth” [Cerrie’s latest book in which the storyteller is a black mermaid] and then there would be no debate about whether we can have a black mermaid!
Children are constantly looking at these roles so if we can show them that there are no boundaries by hearing these different voices then that would be great for them.
B of B: I have read that your books have been sold in more than 13 countries and several different languages, including Iran and the US, which is pretty diverse! What do you think the appeal is of the books that transcend such geographical boundaries?
C: Yes it’s the Harper books predominantly that have been translated. It’s about imagination. All children love the use of magic in books. Everyone knows what rain is, but a magical umbrella, that’s something different.
I also think it’s the use of play and I love language – the phrasing and description. I’m a big advocate of children reading with their parents and I often get lovely letters from families all over the world about how much they have enjoyed reading my books together.
Stories are everywhere.
B of B: There is a conspicuous absence of parental figures in your books, and adults in general. Is there a reason for this?
C: I think that is a big theme in children’s literature and there’s often a reason that parents are out of the way. Kids always had a lot more freedom than they do now so it’s harder for our kids to imagine what it would be like if the adults are out of the way. They can imagine their own adventures and think about what might happen if they break the rules.
Its’ about imagination and all the things that might happen. It’s also about empathy and how the children think they would react in that situation.
Getting kids to use their own imagination is so important.
B of B: As an independent children’s bookshop, we are always interested in hearing what places of reading inspired authors and illustrators. Did you have a favourite bookshop or library when you were growing up?
C: As a young child I loved libraries but I found them confusing as I grew older. You know, I couldn’t read and I had to be quiet.
But I do remember the Bookbus and the Book Fair coming to my school and getting really excited about choosing books. I remember really struggling to choose three books as my mum had told me that’s what I could buy, but at the last minute I persuaded her to buy a fourth book and that last book was “The Faraway Tree” (by Enid Blyton) which turned out to be one of my favourite books.
B of B: What’s next for you?
C: I have a new book coming out in January 2020 called “The Ice Bear Miracle” all about ice and polar bears.
We can’t wait Cerrie. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. And if you are ever in Lewes do drop in and say hello!
C: I would love to!