Author focus: Cerrie Burnell

Joy Court shines a spotlight on children’s author Cerrie Burnell.

2019 started off with a really exciting move up to Middle Grade by this popular actress and CBeebies presenter, turned author.

Cerrie featured in The Guardian’s 2011 list of the 100 most inspirational women, where she received praise for tackling disability head-on. Having been born with her right arm ending slightly below the elbow and refusing to wear a prosthetic arm, she has always said that her disability did not hinder her from doing what she wanted, including ‘sports, swimming, windsurfing, singing in the choir or joining the Army cadets’. Yet she faced controversy about children’s television presenters with physical disabilities. Such apparent prejudice of complainants seems even more shocking today and that has largely been as a result of Cerrie’s determination to face down such prejudice. Thus it is no surprise that she is an author who automatically and without question has representation embedded within her stories.

Her first picture book, Snowflake, featured a mixed-race heroine who discovers that all snowflakes are different.

In her second, Mermaid, we meet the amazing, confident swimmer, Sylvia who helps Luca to learn to swim. It is only when Luca joins his new school and sees Sylvia there in her wheelchair, that the reader realises she is disabled.

Both these representations are important elements of the intriguingly titled The Girl with the Shark’s Teeth, which is Cerrie’s new book, aimed at confident readers of 9 upwards. We know immediately that 12-year-old Minnow is ‘different’ from the young people around her. Not just because she lives alone on a magnificent boat with her wild piratical mother, Mercy, who has a hook in place of a hand. Not just because she did not walk till she was five, being clumsy and having strangely formed bones. She also has a pattern of strange scars behind her ears, whose significance will soon become apparent.

We quickly realise that Minnow is more at home in the sea than on land and can stay submerged for uncanny amounts of time. The beautiful cover by acclaimed illustrator Sandra Dieckmann promises mystery and enchantment below the waves and the reader is certainly not disappointed!

From the moment Minnow watches in horror as her mother is taken by three men, with hurried instructions for her to hide and then take their ship to her grandmother in Iceland once all is clear, the action is fast-paced and thrilling. Gradually more and more of Minnow’s heritage is revealed. We move effortlessly between real settings in Brighton, Rekjavik and the Caribbean, to the underwater world of The Wild Deep.

The mythology of this imagined world is utterly convincing, so much so that one would love to be able to get one’s hands on a copy of The Book of Sea Myths: Tales of the Sea that Minnow and her new friend Raife use to guide their strategy. They trick the fearsome Greenland shark, who guards the entrance to The Deep, and rescue Mercy from her captors. The resolution is completely satisfying, but one cannot help but hope that this is not the last we see of our brave and engaging heroine, Minnow.

This is an immersive story in all senses of the word, exploring the meaning of true family and friendship. Although the mermaid motif will undoubtedly appeal to girls, there is grit, peril and adventure enough to satisfy all readers.

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