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Cerrie Burnell on Why Everyone Deserves to See Themselves in Fairytales

Ever since I was a little girl, my favourite thing to do was curl up with a good book. I gravitated towards fairytales and fantasy because I dreamt of being the adventurous heroine, though like most books I never saw myself represented in them as a disabled child. However, Cerrie Burnell’s newest offering aims to do just that.

Wilder than Midnight is “a bold and evocative new adventure novel from Cerrie Burnell, celebrating difference and found family.” It’s a retelling of Rapunzel, Snow White and Red Riding Hood all rolled into one with one of the main protaganists,Wild Rose, having a limb difference, just like Cerrie.

I was instantly drawn into this idea of fiesty girls and magic so was delighted to sit down with Cerrie over a cuppa on Zoom. What follows below was our conversation, edited for clarity.

Rachel Charlton Dailey: Happy book birthday!

Cerrie Burnell: Thank you! It’s amazing to see it finally out there!

RCD: Can you tell me a little about Wilder than Midnight?

CB: So it’s a modern fairy tale retelling, which is told through a disability lens of the protagonist. Well, there are three protagonists, but the lead protagonist, the one who is responsible for most of the action in the story, is called Wild Rose. And she has the same disability as me, an upper limb difference.

RCD: Yes I love that!

CB: And the story really starts with her when she’s born, she’s born with one hand. And I can’t say too much they don’t want to give the plot away, but her parents don’t accept her because they feel like her having one hand is the mark of the witch frowned upon.

RCD: Witchcraft!

CB: And so she is given to the huntsmen to be sort of, you know, thrown in the river or left to the wolves in the woods, to be disposed of anyway. And the Huntsman is this very passionate man who isn’t afraid of the mark of the Witch, and he does place her with the wolves, but he places her in the care of the wolves. So he knows that she’ll be safe. And then there is another community that also live in the forest called the forest folk. And he speaks to them and says, “Can you keep an eye on this baby?” they somewhat reluctantly agree.

And that’s where our story starts, really is with Wild Rose, having grown up in the forest with this amazing community of, of wolves and folk. And difference [from the original] really is, they’re all different in some way.

RCD: ahhhh I’ve just got it!

CB: Yeah! So they’re forest folk, there’s are seven of them. They’re men and women. It’s a modern retelling and we’ve got the right language to describe them.

RCD: I really like the language you use as well, they’re not referred to as dwarves. I like that.

CB: So this is where I’m going to absolutely big up my inclusivity or sensitivity reader. One of my brilliant friends who has dwarfism was my reader for me, and I think people within that community use the word to describe themselves, but it’s frowned upon now to be used, you know, like by Disney or I suppose because it’s, you know, historically from a folklore perspective, there are quite negative connotations surrounding that particular word.

RCD: Is it more they can use it but others can’t?

CB: Absolutely. So I think I did use it in a first draft. And then as soon as I started having sensitivity readers or inclusivity readers then I was like “Oh, God, no. Okay we need to change that” a really looking at that idea of, of trying to make them a family came from my, brilliant friend and my inclusivity reader Nicola guardi. And as soon as she said, I was like “Oh, my God, of course!”

Sometimes you hone in on your own disability or miss the nuance of others. So it’s a learning journey for everyone who wants to write inclusively. And I actually had three inclusivity readers for this, I had the Jasmine Richards, who is an author in her own right, she’s a black woman and an author. And she read it from a diversity, ethnicity perspective.

And then Dominique Valenti, who is an author who also has the same disability as me, she also has one had, she read it, just to get a different perspective really. Because sometimes when you’re telling the story, you know, as disabled children, we’ve all experienced prejudice or negativity at some point. So I put that in an early draft of the book, but actually, the point where we are now, as Dominique pointed out to me is that you have to tell that in clever ways, so that you’re not excluding a young reader who’s got one hand, who’s looking for that. positive representation

RCD: You almost don’t want to be pushing the negativity on them and making them feel negative in themselves.

CB: Yeah, you can tell the story without leaning into the trauma, I think.

RCD: And that’s how I think me and you have a lot of similarities. We don’t want to have the trauma in a lot of the narratives. I think there’s too much trauma that already.

CB: I mean,of course, there’s a place for it, but there’s a massive width and breadth and diversity stories. We don’t just want that.

“You can tell the story without leaning into the trauma”

RCD: Honestly, like I’ve read so many disability stories, but there’s so few disability adventure stories, fantasy stories. That’s what we’re missing just disabled girls having adventures? Because, yeah, boys are starting to have adventures but disabled girls, were still not having the adventures.

CB: Well, I think maybe they are now maybe they will be now. You look at sort of Lisette Auton’s. And hopefully, this book. And, you know, I think there is a real community of own voice narratives coming through. Of course, there are plenty, of room for more and we need more and we need different perspectives.

RCD: So why did you want to retell and remix the fairy tales from this perspective?

CB: Well, I love fairy tales, I always found them the most magical of all stories really in childhood I mean I think as everyone does, but I also loved the dark of them. I love the kind of the, I suppose the realism that’s in them, the fact that things can get a bit twisted and go a bit wrong sometimes and that there are very real things to be fearful of. And so I wanted to use that, but not make the disability the fearful thing even though you know, initially, wild roses family are afraid of her being different.

Growing up I just really wanted to be Red Riding Hood, or Goldilocks or any of those, you know, quite sort of fearless girls who went off into the woods on their own, they stepped off the path and they went into a stranger’s house and ate the porridge. You know, even in the fairy tales, where we think “oh, yeah well, she just married the prince or whatever” she still had to go to a ball on her own and have the confidence to dance with him.

RCD: I hadn’t thought of it like that.

CB: I love fairy tales so much, and I couldn’t read as a child, because I’m dyslexic as well. But what I love about fairy tales is you don’t ever need to be able to read them. It’s this language that everyone already knows. You see them, you hear them, everyone knows them. You go to a building site and say, “Tell me the story of Rapunzel”

RCD: It’s stories that are passed down from generation to generation, that’s what they were made for, isn’t it?

CB: I didn’t realise it as a child I’ve only come to realise it as an adult, really. But you don’t ever see yourself in a fairy tale as a disabled person unless you’re someone wicked. Or, you know, it’s all very tragic. And you fall over on some thorns and get blinded or whatever. And it all gets a bit biblical. I think that’s in Rapunzel where someone goes blind, and then she cries on him and he gets his sight back

RCD: Yeah it’s the prince. He get blinded trying to save her and it’s true loves first kiss and her tears or some bullshit

CB: So I just wanted to embed this diversity in the story, what felt true to me in a way that felt authentic to me. And I think Wild Rose is the person that I would have loved to have been. I still wanted that darkness to be there, that rejection from the family and the not being able to come to terms with having the disability. But it’s all the problem of the family, it’s not her problem.

RCD: So what things did you have to consider when writing Wild Rose’s limb difference that you wouldn’t have considered when writing somebody who didn’t have a limb difference?

CB: I don’t know if I had to consider it really, because I’ve got one hand, I just wrote it how I would do things. And sometimes I might think “oh, no, I need to go back and actually describe how she’s tying the horse up or pulling the bow and arrow”, but that’s kind of how I write anyway, I write something, I’ll go back and add in extra detail, you know, even if it’s just like, the colour of her hair, or the descriptions of the dress or whatever. So that never felt hard or like I had to consider it at all. Which I think is the joy of writing about your own disability.

RCD: I think that’s the great thing about writing your own disability. If it was somebody who didn’t have the experience, it would be hard, but you’re just writing what you know. And did anything come as a surprise to you, when it came to the sensitivity reading and the inclusivity reading that was picked out that that you thought seemed okay as you were writing it that somebody else picked up on?

CB: Yeah, in the very first stage, she was just left to the wolves by her family, which I thought was amazing, you know, baby left to be raised by wolves, regardless of disability. But actually, when Dominique read it she said “Um, no, I felt that as a rejection, she couldn’t even be left with people.” And I wouldn’t have thought of that because because as as a child I would’ve thought it was amazing but as soon she said it I got it. So we just changed it slightly so that she is left with the forest folk and the wolves, because it’s a very different experience when you’re disabled.

“you don’t ever see yourself in a fairy tale as a disabled person unless you’re someone wicked”

RCD: Do you think there is enough disability representation in children’s books?

CB: No, no, at all. And I think it that has been realised, I think the publishing industry is aware of that. You know, disabled voices are really being given a moment to shine, in fact. I think there are two things to consider. I think not all disabled writers want to write about disability. And we need to have the freedom to not be put in that box ever inspires us.

This is my 13th book. And not every book I’ve written has a disabled protagonist. Snowflakes, the very first book I wrote had nothing to do with disability. I just wrote the story I wanted to write, but I think that probably was a conscious choice on some level. Because I was on CBeebies at the time, and I was having to talk about disability all of the time. And whilst I love disability and I’m happy to talk about it all day. That’s not all I am. And we have to do more than just go “oh yes, Cerrie Burnell, disability, tick” because you’re that’s not progressive, you’re actually not changing anything.

RCD: I’m so sick of being the disabled box tick

CB: So I think what the publishing industry needs is more disabled writers with the freedom to tell whichever stories they want to tell. And if they happen to be around disability, then that’s perfect. Because then, you know, we have that own voice narrative. What we don’t need is able-bodied writers telling stories, because we’ve had that and it doesn’t work. It’s inauthentic, and it’s damaging, and it just ends up reaffirming, really narrow versions of disabled lives and stereotypes. And it’s not the truth.

RCD: I wish you hadn’t mentioned how you constantly asked about disability when you’re on children’s TV, because that’s my next question!

CB: Oh that’s okay!

RCD: so of course, you were the first children’s TV presenter with limb difference, do you think the representation in media has changed much compared to what it was like in your time?

CB: definitely, I think there’s been a huge shift. It’s about 12 years since I started on CBeebies. And I mean, if you look at some of the more recent wins that we’ve had, Rose winning strictly in what was a really diverse final, and the diversity was just in the heart of the show, it was just organically built-in.

We’ve got brilliant presenters like Sophie Morgan, or Ellie Simmons, who are really starting to branch out and tell other stories that aren’t disability-related. But I think in content there is still the same danger really think that we just expect disabled people to talk about disabled issues, you know, present about disability stories or play disabled characters?

And yes, whilst that’s all great, it can get very boring if that’s all you have. So we have to have really strong examples, incidental casting, where you just have disabled people in a story going about their life. They’re just they’re the mum of the main boy, or they’re the neighbour and their disability doesn’t even need to be referred to because everyone in the community knows who they are, unless the storyline is about, they go into a cafe and it’s not accessible so they want to change that.

RCD: There’s no need to announce it every single time

CB: There are far more beautiful and nuanced and graceful ways of showing the reality of disability without announcing it, threading it into the story, in really clever ways. I suppose that an example that I love is the character of Isaac in sex education, which was created by a disabled woman.

RCD: And friendship and found family is such a huge theme in wild and the midnight, we’ve already talked about that loads. But that was such an important thing for me growing up as a young disabled person. How important was that for you when you were growing up?

CB: I was really lucky with my family. My parents have always been super supportive even now, and that’s got nothing to do with disability – that’s just who they are as people. And they were, you know, you know, I had a great childhood. So, in terms of found family, that’s not really an experience that I’ve had, but in terms of like friendship, as a 13 year old girl, my friends were everything to me.

CB: We moved from London to Eastborne when I was 12. And I remember that feeling of my world shrinking, you know, that smallness, not just in terms of geography, but in terms of attitude.

RCD: Yeah my hometown was like that too.

CB: And I was this girl who was loud and I love drama, and I love storytelling and I have one hand and it was all a bit much for some people. But my friends were amazing, so you know, I really treasure that time and I think it’s a very unique and special bond that teenage girls have.

RCD: Teenage girls are amazing.

CB: Well you’re navigating this world which doesn’t always treat women kindly. There’s so many things that you’re becoming aware of, and your body’s changing. And just to have that friendship just to have any just one person, it’s is like two people against the world. And I suppose that’s what I wanted to create, particularly with Wild Rose in Aurelia, that “I don’t need anyone else as long as I’ve got you” kind of friendship. That was important to me to have in the book as well.

RCD: Absolutely. And this is my last question. I think you’ve just touched on it actually, what is the most important message that you’d like to spread with Wilder than Midnight?

CB: That anyone can see themselves in a story, fairy tales are global, they are our shared history, and everyone belongs in them. For too long we’ve whitewashed them and weaved ableism into them. And actually, that’s not what they’re there for, they’re there to represent everybody. So whoever you are, you should be able to find yourself in a story. And if you can’t, then this is your moment to tell your story or to start thinking about the stories that you would like to tell when you’re a little older, perhaps.

Wilder than Midnight* is published by Puffin Books and is available to buy now.

*This is an Amazon affiliate link and allows us to earn some money to pay writers.

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By Rachel Charlton-Dailey

Founder and Editor in Chief

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