Samantha Baines on challenging hearing loss stereotypes in her book Harriet Versus the Galaxy

Published on: 06 November 2019 Author: Alex Strick

Comedian and author Samantha Baines has written a super-fun adventure for children, with a character who happens to be hearing impaired – and with a hearing aid that proves to be a bonus!

How would you sum up Harriet Versus the Galaxy?

Harriet discovers that her hearing aid translates alien languages when she finds a creature from out of space under her bed. Harriet uncovers a few more surprising things too and is charged with protecting the planet from the Munchas, who eat things like socks, pens and, even, knickers!

How did you and illustrator Jess Maria Flores come together?

I was super keen to work with as many people who had experienced hearing loss and deafness as possible on the book. My lovely publisher Knights Of discovered Jess and I couldn't be happier. Her illustrations are amazing and so creative, I'm thrilled that I get to work with her – plus she's deaf, too!

 

See illustrations from Harriet Versus the Galaxy

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Harriet and hearing aid: illustration by Jessica Flores from Harriet Versus the Galaxy by Samantha Baines
Harriet and friend: illustration by Jessica Flores from Harriet Versus the Galaxy by Samantha Baines
Illustration by Jessica Flores from Harriet Versus the Galaxy by Samantha Baines
Illustration by Jessica Flores from Harriet Versus the Galaxy by Samantha Baines
Harriet and hearing aid: illustration by Jessica Flores from Harriet Versus the Galaxy by Samantha Baines

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Harriet and friend: illustration by Jessica Flores from Harriet Versus the Galaxy by Samantha Baines

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Illustration by Jessica Flores from Harriet Versus the Galaxy by Samantha Baines

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Illustration by Jessica Flores from Harriet Versus the Galaxy by Samantha Baines

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Why is it important to you that children’s literature includes characters who happen to be deaf or hearing impaired?

I think it's so important that all children see themselves represented in books. When I discovered I needed hearing aids, I was an adult. Even so, I felt alone and "other", like it would hold me back in my career and social life. In contrast, three years on, I can honestly say that getting a hearing aid is one of the best things that ever happened to me. Sometimes out of challenge comes the most incredible people and experiences. I have realised that myself and I wanted Harriet's story to represent that, too.

Being an ambassador for both Action on Hearing Loss and the British Tinnitus Association has been incredible, and I have got to meet so many people who have had similar experiences to mine. But adults were always asking me if I could recommend any books or films for children that mentioned hearing loss. I personally couldn’t list any, so I decided to create one.

Not only is it important for children with hearing loss to see people like them in the media and literature, it’s important to help young people understand adults in their life who might have hearing loss, and start conversations around hearing protection and hearing aids.

Find other children's books that explore or touch on deafness

Harriet’s hearing aid isn’t central to the plot (although it does prove quite useful to her in understanding the aliens!). How important do you feel it is to show authentic experiences of deafness without making it in any way an "issue" book?

It was so important to me that Harriet's hearing aid doesn't hold her back. It's actually a bonus. I wanted the book to be a fun adventure that everyone can enjoy first and foremost with an awesome little girl with a hearing aid and her non-binary friend who aren't defined by being "different". They are defined by their personalities and skills in saving the planet.

In Harriet’s case, she has acquired hearing loss – is this something you were particularly keen to highlight?

I discovered that 60 per cent of hearing loss in children is preventable and to me (and I hope most people) that’s a hugely shocking statistic. It's so important to be aware of loud environments for young children and to use ear defenders where possible. Also, regular vaccinations are really important as diseases like measles can cause deafness in children,  as well as chronic ear infections.

My hearing loss developed over time and I used my experience to describe Harriet's loss too, which came from being exposed to loud noise. However, there is a real spectrum of hearing loss with some children born profoundly Deaf and others have loss that develops in one or both ears. It’s hard to represent everyone’s experience of deafness and hearing loss in one book but hopefully Harriet’s can start the conversation.

What kinds of stereotypes or assumptions have you come across about people who are deaf or hearing impaired?

Hearing loss/deafness is an invisible disability, which brings its own unique reactions. When I tell people I have a hearing aid, often they say "you'd never know", as if it's something I am trying to or should hide and people have said to me that I don’t sound deaf. There is a lot of preconceptions that come with deafness and hearing loss and hearing aids too. My hearing aid doesn't whistle, it's not huge and cumbersome, it doesn't affect my speech and I don't use sign language as my main method of communication. Many people with hearing loss use hearing aids or cochlear implants and lip read. There is a whole community of people who speak using sign language and are profoundly Deaf and proud to be Deaf and don't see it as any sort of disability.

I think there is still not enough awareness around hearing loss and deafness and that can make people feel uncomfortable with how to react. The World Health Organisation predicts that hearing loss will be the second-biggest health issue worldwide in the next 20 years, so it is really something we all need to start talking about and raising awareness of. Soon hearing aids might be as common as glasses! On that note, I’d love a Burberry hearing aid!

Both the rip-roaring narrative and quirky and energetic illustrations in this book are hugely funny – we get the sense that humour was always going to be an essential ingredient for you?

I am a comedian at heart and humour has got me through the hardest times in my life like my dad's death, my hearing loss and MRI journey (I had to have tests to make sure I didn't have a brain tumour as I have one-sided hearing loss). I love funny books myself and humour can be a brilliant tool in making more serious issues accessible. Also, I just find it very hard not to be a little bit silly over that many pages!

Without giving any spoilers, it’s fair to say the end of the book leaves things open for more adventures for Harriet…?

Yes! I’d love to know if you’d like to see more from Harriet and maybe see her travel to space and explore some of the planets in person. That would be really fun to write, so please say yes!

What sort of research did you do to make sure other characters were also authentically depicted?

Harriet’s best friend is Robin who identifies as non-binary. I wanted Harriet to have a friend who has experiences of feeling "other" like her but that doesn’t hold either of them back. As more children and adults are being more open about their gender fluidity and sexuality, and it’s being reflected in TV shows and the media, I think it’s really important that this is represented in literature, too.

I believe that the new school curriculum will teach children about gender and identity and sexuality, so I think it’s important to show that representation not just in an educational setting. I was inspired by Jamie Windust, an activist on Instagram, who started a campaign for better recognition for people who don’t identify as either male or female on government forms. I spoke to Jamie about the book and also had a non-binary person and parent of a non-binary child read the book before we published it. They thanked me for including their stories and that meant a lot to me.

Harriet Versus The Galaxy is out now, published by Knights Of in hardback, £12.99.


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