Hi Caryl! Thank you so much for chatting to me about your new book ‘Mini Monsters: Can I Play?’
Could you give us a quick overview of what the book is about?
Mini Monsters is a brand new series that deals with some of the challenges and emotions that young children experience within a pre-school setting.
The first book, Can I Play? focuses on the tricky subject of playing with more than one friend. Sparkle is putting on a magic show with Arthur, but when Scout wants to join in, Sparkle isn’t happy. She just wants to play with Arthur. But her inability to be flexible upsets Scout and leaves Arthur feeling worried and confused. It is only when Sparkle herself experiences being left out, that she realises that playing together is more fun after all.
For any child who has felt left-out, and for those who have experienced wanting to play exclusively with a limited number of friends, I hope this story will give young children a better understanding of their feelings and how these impact on others.
What inspired you to write this story?
I started trying to create these stories in 2015 after watching countless episodes of Channel 4s ‘The Secret Life of Five Year Olds’, which we watched as a family. Like many people, we found these programmes really touching, funny and eye-opening and they brilliantly highlighted the huge range of emotional struggles that children of this age encounter when making the transition from home to a more formal educational setting.
Although the characters in the book are monsters, they are still very diverse. Was this a conscious choice on your part?
I work really hard to make the characters in all my books as diverse as possible. Because I do a lot of work in schools, I meet children from all walks of life so I do feel it’s important to try and give all children characters that they can relate to. I think it’s easy to make assumptions about people we don’t know, so I try to avoid stereotyping where I possibly can. This is incredibly difficult to do in practise as we are all the product of our upbringing and our own experience. But as an industry, I feel it’s our responsibility to do whatever we can to challenge the unconscious bias we may have and push ourselves to create characters and stories that feel authentic for the society we live in.
What was it like to work with Tony Neal, the illustrator?
You might be surprised to hear that authors and illustrators don’t generally work directly together. Instead the writer will work with an editor and the illustrator works with a designer. The editor and designer are the ones who work directly together. Having said that, I do get to see the book at every stage as it progresses and am able to comment on character design, text layouts, rough sketches and final artwork. Tony is a relative newcomer to children’s publishing and I’m really impressed with the way he has drawn out the characters’ personalities and created a charming and endearing backdrop for their stories. I am in love with the design of these books – the colour schemes and back drops cleverly reflect the characters’ emotions and dilemmas so I can’t wait to create more stories with Tony
‘Can I Play?’ is the first book in the Mini Monsters series for pre-schoolers. What other topics do you plan to tackle?
Book two deals with competitiveness – winning and losing – and also with kindness and empathy. It’s about understanding and valuing different personalities and learning to celebrate our different strengths. Writing that all down makes me realise how much we’ve managed to pack into the second book – which is out next year!
Have you always wanted to be a children’s author?
When I was ten, my dad gave me a Lett’s Schoolgirl’s diary – which was a tiny, plastic covered notebook with pages about 4 cm wide and around 2cm space for each day. He encouraged me to use it to write about my life and from then I was hooked. My favourite entry reads:
25 May 1978: Went to school. Went to library. Swimming. Karate. Ken chopped a brick in half with his hand. Bath. Bed.
But even though I loved writing, I didn’t really believe it was an actual job that I could do. I used to stare at those adverts in the back of magazines that said: “You Could Write for a Living,” and think “I’d like to be able to do that, but surely that’s not really a job!” I was also very keen on wildlife and wanted to be David Attenborough, so I ended up pursuing science at school and university. So I didn’t actually come to creative writing until my early thirties after my eldest daughter was born. It was going back to the library and re-discovering children’s books that made me realise that writing could actually be a real job and that it was a job that perhaps I could do!
What is the best bit about your job?
The thought of becoming self-employed was totally terrifying at first but has turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. At last I had a job that could fit around my family and enable me to keep my own hours. Of course, being freelance has its downsides too – the constant worry about not having enough work, matched with the worry about having too much! And with two young children to support and a mortgage to pay, I couldn’t have made the transition from employed to freelance without the support of my family.
For me, writing picture books is hugely rewarding, because each book is a separate project which starts as a blank page or a germ of an idea at the back of my brain, and goes through a number of stages, each one more exciting than the last, until you get a finished book. I find the process incredibly satisfying, especially if that book goes on to get good reviews. Imagine creating a story out of nothing and ending up with parents messaging you on social media to say it’s their child’s favourite book and they’ve read it every night for the past two weeks.
You’ve now written over 40 books. Is there one which is particularly close to your heart?
Oh gosh, people always ask me that! It’s like asking which is your favourite child! Each and every one of the books I have worked on is special to me for different reasons. But to give you a few, I’m really proud of Girls Can Do Anything, illustrated by Ali Pye (Scholastic) because I’ve had such a brilliant response from parents and girls all over the world. I’m also hugely proud of my retelling of Peter Pan, illustrated by Sarah Warburton (Nosy Crow) because it was an absolutely mammoth project and I didn’t really believe I’d be able to do it, largely because the retelling is in rhyme. But the book is really, really beautiful thanks to Sarah’s incredible illustrations and Nosy Crow’s amazing flair for design. I’m also incredibly pleased with the Albie books, and find it hard to believe that book ten is coming out this summer.
Do you recall your favourite picture books from when you were a child?
I loved a book called Snuffy by Dick Bruna which is about a little girl who gets lost. Snuffy the dog finds her and carries her home on his back. I always wanted to be that little girl! I used to play a game where I knocked on the front door of our house, pretending to be an orphan. My mum would invite me in and give me hot chocolate and biscuits! It made me feel very safe and loved.
And what were your favourites to read with your children?
My children are 21 and 17 now, so I don’t read with them much any more! But when they were growing up we had bedtime stories every single night and would often read piles of books during the day too, so reading together has been a big part of our lives as a family. Now we share audio books which is lovely. I do still grab them to listen to new picture books as they’re published and am always relieved if they like the stories!
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us! If any of our readers want to find out more then where can they find you?
You can read our review of ‘Mini Monsters: Can I Play?’ by clicking here.