Debut novel is latest achievement for Carryduff schoolgirl who once again proves size doesn’t stop you achieving your dreams

She’s already appeared on stage and screen and helped design a clothing range, now Carryduff teenager Cara Mailey has teamed up with a leading children’s author to pen her first novel. I Got This is inspired by her own experience of growing up with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. She chats to Jenny Lee

Carryduff teenager Cara Mailey does not let size stand in the way of achieving her dreams
Carryduff teenager Cara Mailey does not let size stand in the way of achieving her dreams

CARA Mailey has been a familiar face on our television screens since she first appeared on CBBC's makeover show, The Dengineers, as a nine-year-old.

The Carryduff girl went on to land a role as one of six presenters on CBBC's Craft Party and last year appeared in the CBBC documentary My Life: Made to Measure, where she helped design a fashion line for children with achondroplasia.

Now the 13-year-old, who lives with the height-restricting condition which affects cartilage growth in the body, has written her first novel.

Aimed at readers aged nine-plus, I Got This is set in Belfast and inspired by her own experiences. It follows Erin, who finds starting secondary school challenging. But when a famous pop group announces a competition for fans to be part of their next music video, Erin decides to go for it. She wants to show her younger brother that in life, there are no limits - even if you don't look like most other kids.

But making an audition video is proving more difficult than Erin expected... And when an opportunity comes up that might increase her chances, Erin begins to wonder: can she stay true to herself and pursue her dreams?

Being both mixed-race and small means Cara can get a lot of unwanted attention, but she has always stressed that she is "proud to be unique" and "being different is good".

She has carried this positivity and enthusiasm into I Got This, which is not just about life with achondroplasia, but about loving yourself for being exactly who you are.

"I hope the book shows more people what it's like to be small like me, but also show that everyone can dream big," says Cara.

The book is written in partnership with Chrissie Sains, author of An Alien in the Jam Factory and The Treasure Under the Jam Factory.

"It's a fun, warm read full of humour and truth about how limitless life can be and how we can achieve anything with friends and family behind us," says Chrissie, who thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with Cara.

Cara Mailey and Chrissie Sains have co-authored the novel I Got This
Cara Mailey and Chrissie Sains have co-authored the novel I Got This

As well as meeting up in London in-between lockdowns, most of the novel was planned and written over a long series of Zoom meetings.

"Cara had a really great vision for what she wanted the story to be. We did a chapter plan and once we had agreed all of that, with each step we got a bit closer. Of course we had lots of giggles amongst the ideas," adds Chrissie.

"People think you write it and it's published but there's so much more to doing a book. Planning and editing it was so much fun," says Cara, who thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

"I love talking, so the most fun part was in planning the storyline. I would just sit there telling stories about my life."

Just chatting to Cara myself on Zoom, it's easy to see how her bubbly personality and zest for life is so infectious and has touched so many.

I Got This is a mix of fact and fiction, blending real life experiences and characters such as her younger brother Noah, known as Joe in the book, and who also has achondroplasia, with artistic license.

So while Cara doesn't actually love eating jam and cheese sandwiches she, like her character Erin, has got accidentally locked in public toilets.

The pop group in I Got This is called Fusion Junior, but Cara reveals she based them upon her own favourite band, Little Mix.

"We've been to three or four Little Mix concerts. Right at the start of the book where I was describing Erin hearing the rumbling of the floor in the distance; one day we were late to the concert and that is exactly what we heard."

A year nine pupil of Assumption Grammar, Ballynahinch, Cara is adamant that the fictional All Saints All Girls Grammar is nothing like her own school, especially the overbearing classroom assistant Barbara, who does not give Erin any space.

"I think we did the opposite with the school and Barbara is completely different to my classroom assistants, who are all lovely."

Cara's mum Trisha, who too has achondroplasia, was also involved in many of the Zoom sessions and, like Cara's English teacher and school librarian, is extremely proud of her latest achievement.

"The character of Barbara was a way of raising awareness of how some people perceive small people and can be patronising by giving little pats on the head or over-protection when that isn't always needed.

"As Cara has gotten older I can see her getting a little more frustrated by her condition and people's reactions. She's 13 and at an age where it's a wee bit harder for both her and myself. One example is her wanting to go to a teenage disco," admits Trisha.

Cara loves dancing, singing and acting. She has appeared in a number of local stage productions in The MAC and Lyric theatres in Belfast, most recently Annie and Legally Blonde.

"I'm doing my grade five musical theatre exam and would like to work in musical theatre and TV in the future. But if that doesn't work out I want to be a midwife," she adds.

Her ideal television role is another which would further break down barriers - as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, alongside dance professional Johannes Radebe.

"During lockdown I did salsa lessons with Strictly's Katya Jones online, so that's good preparation," she laughs.

As for a presenting job, I could see Cara hosting the brand new Strictly Junior on CBBC.

Cara also doesn't rule out returning to the adventures of Erin with a follow-up novel and she would love to help design a further range of her She's Fierce clothing range for teenagers with dwarfism.

 I Got This by Cara Mailey in partnership with Chrissie Sains is published by Scholastic and is released on Thursday April 14.