Interview: Caryl Hart on Albie's Time-Travelling Picture Books - Egypt! Rome! The Stone Age!
Updated: May 6
Here, at the Imagining History homestead, the stories of children's author Caryl Hart are a mega-hit. We loved her introduction to the planets in the space-spanning adventure, Meet the Planets and we adored discovering what happens When a Dragon goes to School. But, for the purposes of this month's Imagining History Recommends, it is the adventures of Albie that caught our eye.
Albie is the creation of Caryl and illustrator Ed Eaves. Each story is a fantastical escapade that will delight children and adults alike. Albie's recent adventures have seen him visit Ancient Egypt in How to find Egyptian Treasure and Ancient Rome in How to Drive a Roman Chariot. We were lucky enough to be able to interview Caryl recently, and it was these time-travelling tales that we wanted to find out more about.
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Imagining History: What was the inspiration behind the creation of Albie and his wonderfully varied stories?
Caryl Hart: When my children were young, we often went to the supermarket together, and I started to wonder how much more fun it might be to buy animals instead of cornflakes and washing powder. The result was Supermarket Zoo. The story was picked up by Simon and Schuster and published as a stand-alone title in 2009.
A year later, I was walking to our allotment with my friend Phoebe who was 2 years old. Phoebe asked me what I was going to grow, and I said carrots. When I asked Phoebe what SHE was going to grow, she said CHICKENS! It got me wondering what it would be like if you really could grow a chicken from a seed. Or, if you could grow something even more exciting! It was then I wrote How to Grow a Dinosaur! Initially I wasn't planning for this to be Albie's second adventure, but when my editor at Simon and Schuster read it, we all agreed that this would be the perfect story for Albie. Since then, Ed Eaves and I have created around one book every year, with book 11 due out this summer.
IH: What do you love most about writing stories for children?
Caryl: The best bit about creating picture books is seeing the stories come to life. It often takes me weeks or months and many, many rewrites to create a finished first draft. This is then laid out by a designer, then the illustrator, Ed Eaves in this case, will create some rough drawings to fill the pages.
Once these are all agreed by everyone, including me, the illustrator will create full colour images and the book is eventually printed. It's so exciting seeing the stories go from ideas in a notebook through all the various stages, to become a solid, beautiful book that you can hold in your hand!
The other amazing thing is when people tell me how much they love my stories. It's a deeply satisfying feeling for sure!
IH: You deliver loads of brilliant school visits, both virtual and in-person, could you tell us a little more about these?
Caryl: When we're not stuck at home because of covid, I visit schools around the UK, telling stories and helping children develop a love of books, reading and writing. I am often approached by teachers at the end of the day who tell me how much the children have loved my visit and how particular children have suddenly become motivated to write.
Many of the children I work with are from deprived backgrounds and may not have any books at home. Many live in communities with high unemployment and low aspirations. One of the things I try to do during my visits is to give children confidence that their own ideas are good ones and to show them that writing need not be an arduous task to be endured, but a joyful and exciting activity to share.
IH: We've particularly enjoyed Albie's recent adventures in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome. What were some of the most interesting things you learnt about history from your research?
Caryl: Well, did you know that there are around 120 pyramids in Egypt? I thought there were only four or five, so that was a big surprise! I also discovered that the ancient Egyptians farmed geese and oxen and used ploughs and sickles for growing and harvesting crops, which included leeks, salad, beans, figs and pomegranates.
As for the Ancient Romans, did you know that many girls were not allowed to go to school? Some had tutors at home but many were expected to learn only about housekeeping. I'm glad I didn't live in ancient Rome that's for sure!
IH: How to Find Egyptian Treasure is a really fun story, but it's also got loads of historical detail in it. There's the inclusion of the Sphinx, hieroglyphics to decode and even a teeny tiny Horus to find - was it tricky to balance the entertainment with the educational content in this or any other of your stories? What's the sweet spot?
Caryl: Most of the historic content you talk about is shown in the illustrations. The text of the story doesn't mention many of these features by name. Ed Eaves has done a fabulous job of slipping all these details in without making too big a deal of it! We didn't want the stories to feel educational, we wanted them to be fun so that children might be motivated to find out more about what they see.
We wanted to fire up children's imaginations and help them picture how life might be for them if they lived in ancient times. Personally, I sometimes find fact books difficult to digest and the information hard to read about and remember.
For me, it's the human interaction that is the interesting bit. I like to focus on what it was like to live and play in those times, what people ate, what they did in their spare time, what they were afraid of and what they looked forward to. When you look at history in this way, you realise that the people from thousands of years ago were really just like us.
Everyone wants to love and be loved, to be entertained and challenged. Everyone wants to feel they are important and that they have a contribution to make in the world. By creating stories about ordinary people in different settings we can develop greater empathy and understanding for the real people around us, both within our communities and in the wider world.
IH: We've noticed that the next book in the series takes Albie to the Stone Age - can you give us a sneaky preview of what's in store for Albie and the gang?
Caryl: I noticed on your website that you feature a stone age flute. Well, we also have a flute hidden in our story! There are also cave paintings like the ones archaeologists have found in Lascaux and LOTS of amazing prehistoric animals
In How to Track a Sabre Toothed Tiger, Albie finds a little striped kitten in his garden. He soon discovers that it belongs to a girl called Thorn. When the kitten runs away, Albie and Thorn search for tracks in the mud. Will they find the kitten or something a little larger?! IH: Albie has recently celebrated his 10-year anniversary. Are there any other eras of history you are considering including in a future book? We'd love to see Albie on a Viking longship at some point!
Caryl: Gosh, there are so many possibilities! I'd also love to write a Viking story, or one based on the Great Wall of China perhaps! The great thing about the Albie stories is that they all follow a similar pattern, so once you've read a few, you can have a go at writing your own! Perhaps your readers would like to try their hand at creating a brand new adventure of their own!
A big thank you to Caryl for taking the time to have a chat with us - we found her answers absolutely fascinating and we hope you did too!
To find out more about Caryl's books and visits, head over to her website: www.carylhart.com