WHEN best-selling children’s author Cathy Cassidy called at the University of Central Lancashire recently, writewyattuk’s chief blogger was there to meet her – albeit hiding behind his eldest daughter (who adds her own footnote).
I FELT a bit of an outsider, to be honest. As I walked into the foyer of the Foster Building at the University of Central Lancashire, it was clearly a no-boy zone – you only had to clock the rather fetching display of perfectly pink balloons, the cupcakes bearing edible pictures of the guest author, Cathy Cassidy, and all those girl-themed books laid out.
It was nothing I couldn’t cope with though, and at least I could hide behind my 13-year-old daughter if things got too intense. Besides, before now I’d managed to survive promo events featuring Lauren Kate and Jacqueline Wilson unscathed. It’s just about keeping your focus and engaging with the subject.
By the time I was inside the impressive Mitchell & Kenyon Cinema, there was a new concern. How many of us would actually show up? As a fellow writer who empathises with authors’ fears that no one will turn out to their book events, I felt a few butterflies on Cathy’s behalf.
I shouldn’t have worried though. While not a sell-out, there was a steady flow of arrivals from there, many still in school uniform, most brandishing copies of Cathy’s latest hardback, Coco Caramel, or others in the Chocolate Box series.
Helen Day, UCLan’s senior lecturer in children’s literature, introduced the special guest, encouraging the younger audience members to share a few of their reasons for loving Cathy’s books and characters. You could tell Helen was a fan too – genuinely admiring her craft as well as subscribing to the ‘chocolate and young romance – what’s not to love?’ school of thinking.
By that stage, I’d even spotted – gasp – more specimens of the male sex, even trading a nod with one. Our body language clearly suggested ‘I’m only here because of my daughter … honest’. It was more than that for me, mind. In fact, I was already half-way through the first Chocolate Box book – Cherry Crush (albeit three years too late), and could see this was no half-baked junior chick lit cash-in. Cathy was clearly a valued writer and illustrator, and one with plenty of story craft.
She soon made her entrance, her fans enjoying a few shared confidences, not least about Cathy’s own school-days. She explained that – contrary to expectations – her favourite subject wasn’t English. As she put it, “I loved all the bits of the English lesson where the teachers said ‘write a story, free choice, anything you like’. That was perfect. But all the bits to do with spelling and grammar and all those rules were not quite so perfect.”
So was it art that most inspired her at school? After all, she ended up training to be an illustrator, going on to work as an art teacher in primary and secondary schools, and still illustrated her books. But no. Apparently not, as “unfortunately we had an art teacher at my secondary school from just about the time of the dinosaurs, and his favourite thing was to get us to do endless still-life drawings of very cobwebby old wine bottles.”
It turned out that her favourite subject wasn’t even on the timetable – day-dreaming. In revealing this, Cathy soon determined she wasn’t alone, a quick show of hands suggesting it had caused plenty more girls out there (and a couple of grown-up lads) problems at school.
Cathy said: “My very first ambition in life, way ahead of anything to do with being an author or an illustrator, was how I could manage to not get caught day-dreaming.” But just as she was about to run through her top three tips for getting away with day-dreaming in class (despite having identified at least one teacher in the audience) the university gremlins struck and her microphone cut out, our guest having to rely on the theatre’s acoustics from then on.
Instead she promised that those who got in touch with her after the visit would receive those tips by email. My eldest daughter did just that, and was made up by Cathy’s swift response. She still won’t let me in on the secret though. Pesky kids.
If there was a moral to her story, it was the fact that Cathy’s day-dreaming eventually worked for her. As she added: “Day-dreaming time is never wasted. I know that for a fact, because I get paid to do it these days. And if you get published, you get to share your day-dreams with readers all around the world.”
Cathy’s talk moved on with the help of images from her website to her recent move – like the star of Cherry Crush – down from Scotland, in her case to a Victorian house in Merseyside after ‘decades in the wild’, and ‘finally a room I got to call my own writing room’.
That said, a string of recent launch events and various festivals mean she’s still at the unpacked box stage. And after regaling us with stories of book festival appearances in China, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and across the UK, she re-inforced her earlier point, adding: “If teachers ever try to tell say to you day-dreaming won’t get you anywhere in life, you now know that’s not true. It can take you to all kinds of places.”
Cathy’s rural Galloway Hills retreat certainly looked inspiring, this scribe for one jealous of her blue wooden writing shed in the back garden, while others swooned over the tepee in the grounds, one that has also proved a hit for visiting schoolchildren. She tried to tell us she needed her hut to escape her teenage children, their friends and frequent parties (complete with electric guitars, drums and lots of noise). But it didn’t quite wash – the photos suggested she was having far too much of a good time for any sympathy.
There was mention of Somerset too, where Cherry Costello relocated and where Cathy herself was an art student and part-time waitress, explaining the hybrid locations she used for the Chocolate Box series as examples of the writer’s excuse for a holiday – the research break. She also shared with us character sketches, mood-boards, story plans and talk of scribbled notes on location. And at that point you could tell there were a fair few audience members – adults and children alike – thinking, ‘I want that life’.
But as the Coventry-born author, illustrator, former teenage agony aunt and art teacher stressed to her impressionable gathering, it didn’t all happen overnight.
Cathy went on to mention the characters she invented and tales she shared as a child in the ’60s, those early self-drawn comics and picture books leading to her send stories to her favourite teen magazine, Jackie.
She explained: “Over the next few years I sent hundreds and hundreds of stories to the fiction editor, and received countless, if very polite rejection letters. Yet that tiny sliver of hope always grabbed me and I would run off and the whole process would start over again. Eventually, the persistence paid off, because you kind of train yourself and get a little better each time. When I was 16, a different magazine paid for and published a story I wrote.”
Cathy paused to throw that inspirational tale out to her audience, telling them about her ‘magazine girls’, three Scottish fans who told her they wanted to write their own mag. She suggested they wait for September then approach their school magazine. But her eager trio ignored that and organised their own publication – taking care of everything from content and design to writing – with ‘kind of legendary’ local success.
As it was, it was her art that took Cathy closer to her dream job, although she feels art and writing are always “two sides of the same coin – you can paint your picture with words and you can tell a story with pictures too.” After attending art college in Liverpool she looked around for jobs, but the country was in the grip of a recession and nothing came up, until a reply from … wait for it … Jackie.
After a couple of interviews she was hired, ‘starting my way up from the bottom to the position of fiction editor’, a key position which played to her strengths as she got to buy and edit stories and artwork, something that ‘taught me a lot about the job I do these days, how to make sure a story’s structured properly, and so on’.
She added: “It was great training, with interviews with dodgy boy bands of the time, and much more. It was hard work, but rewarding too.”
With Coco Caramel now out, Cathy’s working on the fifth book in the series (not including World Book Day 2013 spin-off, Bittersweet), due to be published next summer, following the story of the difficult elder Tanberry sister, Honey. And on the evidence of her UCLan audience and favourable reception elsewhere, it will be another best-seller.
For those who haven’t got past the girlie branding, Cathy is perhaps seen as just the latest Jacqueline Wilson wannabe, not least as her books cover similar rite-of-passage subjects such as feelings, friendship, boys, modern families, confidence … But she’s worth much more than that, and I feel this generation and future ones will identify more with Cathy’s cleverly-drawn characters and story-telling.
While it’s the Chocolate Box books centre-stage at present, Cathy has published more than 20 books in barely a decade, starting out with 2004’s Dizzy and also including the Daizy Star series for younger readers.
I asked Cathy as she signed books from a camper van parked outside the uni if she’d been approached by any TV people about her Chocolate Box series, in the wake of Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker success. She suggested not, but you get the feeling it won’t be long. And there’s evidence in the success of her website’s CCTV project and its regular video diaries that it would work.
Cathy carried out a little market research of her own on the day, a multiple-choice quiz designed to lead you to the character you felt closest to. There was a boys’ one too, but as there were so few of us she quite rightly glossed over that.
There was a ringing endorsement for the library service on the day too, Cathy explaining how as a child she was a serial borrower, and only in later years had she scoured second-hand shops for the books and vintage toys that helped her through childhood.
That included a rare plug for Richard Adams’ Watership Down, a book she said she coveted more than others as a child, and proved the adage about judging a book by its cover – this was no cosy book about fluffy bunnies. Furthermore, she explained that a chance conversation about that book with a boy led to a friendship and realisation that reading was cool after all, and not something to feel embarrassed about.
Sometimes public appearance Q&A sessions can go awry, and there was an awkward moment as one fan asked a question relating to the end of Coco Caramel. But Cathy quickly diverted her ‘spoiler alert’ and answered the question without answering it (if you get my drift).
She also explained how in the beginning she’d take around three to four months to write a book, whereas now – despite no longer teaching and with her children out from under her feet – it was somehow taking her six months.
Then Cathy was wrapping up, ready for a swift break before facing the queues at her signing session, promising those who still had questions that she’d do her best to answer from the back of her van, or later via email.
And overall it’s fair to say that Cathy came over extremely well, convincing not only her young fans, but also a few cynical older blokes too.
To learn more about Cathy, her books and inspirations, forthcoming events, watch the Chocolate Box video diaries, and much more, head to http://www.cathycassidy.com/
A Daughter’s Footnote
Hi, well, this is a first – he’s actually allowed me to write something on his blog!
So, here goes. When we went in, there was pink bunting and balloons everywhere, and cakes and sweets on tables with more pink covers on. After some words by someone Dad knows, Cathy came out and talked about her life – from sending letters to the person in charge of putting stories in Jackie to having that job herself.
Her latest series – about the Chocolate Box girls – is amazing, and about five sisters (Honey, twins Skye and Summer, Coco and step-sister Cherry). All the characters are really believable and interesting. Also, their house, Tanglewood, is like my ideal house. Personally, I don’t think Cherry Crush is the best in the series, but even if you agree with me on that, you should still read the others. They get better.
Cathy Cassidy is great! Last year, when I went to see Lauren Kate (really good, although I didn’t know who she was when Dad first mentioned the event, and nor did he), one of the women selling her books asked which writers I liked. When I said Cathy, she said she didn’t know any teenage girls she wouldn’t recommend her to. And she was an expert!
I can’t put Cathy’s day-dreaming tips on here, as Dad will read them. But I’m sure if you ask her via her website, she’ll let you know. And while you’re on there, you can also look at the weekly ‘CCTV’ vlogs by the Chocolate Box girls, which give different views on the book’s main events.
P.S. While I was queueing to get my books signed, the organisers let me have three of the pink balloons. Misery-guts did make me give one to my little sister though.