Cerrie Burnell: ‘Not just a story about someone with one hand’

Published on: 18 December 2015 Author: Alex Strick

Bestselling Cerrie Burnell talks about her quest to write amazing, magical children's books – with characters that just happen to use wheelchairs and have mixed ethnicity.

Cerrie Burnell is a much-loved presenter on Cbeebies – but that's not the only string to her bow.

She is also a successful children's author, who recently released her first novel for young readers, called Harper and the Scarlet Umbrella.

Nate is a key character in the book. He's visually impaired, but there's so much more to him and his abilities. And Cerrie is leading the way when it comes to diverse books like this one.

She spoke to us about the stories she's writing – and the ones she still wants to create.

Can you tell us a bit about how you started writing, but particularly how your books came to be 'inclusive'?

I think any writer always knows in their heart what they want to do – probably before they can even hold a pen. I know this was the case for me.

The ideas for the books I write today started to form at a very early age, as young as four. But, having dyslexia, I couldn't write until I was about ten. I was more of an editor than a writer - collecting phrases I liked and piecing them together. Then when I had my daughter, I really started putting it all onto paper. 

In terms of writing inclusive books, it wasn't really a choice – they are just the stories I find myself telling.

It comes naturally if you've grown up on the periphery of what is perceived "normal" – in my case, being disabled, being a single mum, having a mixed race daughter.

You write the stories that interest you, and about the people and things that you know.

All your books to date have been naturally inclusive, featuring a wheelchair user and now a visually impaired character – as well as general messages about diversity.  

How can writers achieve this without making it contrived?

I suppose the answer is to ensure you feel confident in what you are writing about – so talk about things you know, or can get to know.

I write the stories that I want to tell and that I think need telling. I write about the world I see and the world I want to see.

But above all, of course, you must have a good story.

How did images of disabled characters affect you, growing up?

I didn't really see any images – and the few books that were shown to me were awful! They usually had a very medical approach... 

Children aren't stupid. If you present them with an issue book, they will run a mile! You need that special mix, that certain magic. Great books often start normal – and then take the reader into the extraordinary.

You need diverse protagonists who are believable, but you must also have adventure, compassion and magic – not just a story about someone with one hand.

What did you want to achieve with Nate?

I wanted him to be really independent. The story shows that he has skills, perhaps the most valuable skills. So, for example, he's not afraid of the dark. He can use his sense of hearing well. 

I also knew he'd need some sort of help to get around, so he needed a cane or a dog. I chose to give him a wolf.  

She's an important character too, as they have a strong partnership. Nate rescued her but now they are a team. She doesn't need a lead – she's choosing to be with him.

You've touched on growing up with dyslexia – how problematic has this been for you as child and now as an adult?

My biggest issue is that dyslexia is viewed so negatively. To me, it's not a problem or a disability. It's just a different way of seeing the world. 

I was perhaps lucky, as I grew up being rather protected by my teachers and parents. They made sure I was never made to feel a failure.

What advice would you give to parents – and children – about growing up with dyslexia? 

They need to ignore the negative, dark way of viewing dyslexia. I think most schools are still not quite mastering the most effective ways to give children with dyslexia the right tuition. So it can often be down to parents to find (and fund) the right tuition, hence here's something of a class divide.

My advice would be to never allow anyone to label your child lazy or stupid. Everyone can become a reader. And keep sharing books with your child, as the love of stories is key.

What other books are you working on? Would you ever include a character who had reading difficulties in one of your books? 

The more I go down this route, the more ideas come to me.

Yes, there is a book I'd like to write one day for older children. It would include a variety of characters, including one who happened to have dyslexia. The message I'd want to get across would be the power that you can have – the way dyslexia can give you the ability to think outside the box.

Finally, how would you like to see the children's book landscape change where inclusion is concerned?

I think publishing inclusive books needs to become the natural thing to do. And this doesn't just go for disability but in terms of other aspects of diversity, such as race, too.  

However, it all needs good stories and strong characters. Things are definitely starting to change and I hope I can be a small part of that change.

I hope we will gradually move towards a time where this just happens naturally, and there is no overt 'need' to be met.

Instead, the stories we give our children will just include everyone. 

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