A popular pre-teen author, English born Cathy Cassidy lives an eclectic life in the Scottish hills. Surrounded by her family, pets, vintage trinkets and signature camper van, she’s content to stay in her "writing shed" all day. Driven by a desire to help children deal with the transition from child to teenager, Cassidy spent 12 years as an agony aunt for UK teen magazine Shout. Since her time at the magazine she has published 11 books – not including her pre-teen guide, Letters To Cathy, about surviving adolescence, which is soon to be released. Cassidy took time out from her busy schedule at the Bookworm International Literary Festival to chat with beijingkids about teens, determination, and vegetarianism.
Tell me about your latest book, Cherry Crush due for a China release in October.
It’s the first in a series of books for 9- to14-year-olds and it’s the first time I’ve done anything for that age group. Cherry Crush is about two families with five girls coming together and learning how to live as a step-family. There’ll be five books in the series, each from the perspective of a different sister.
Do you ever consult with your son (17) or daughter (16) during the writing process?
I probably wouldn’t discuss themes with them, but they’re always my first readers. They read my books even before my editors, and I value their input more than anybody’s. They are the perfect people to say, "Kids wouldn’t say that."
How did you persevere and finally get your books published?
I’d never met any writers; I didn’t know you were allowed to be a writer. The time I grew up in and the schools I went to, I wasn’t taught that the sky was the limit. But I loved telling stories and loved daydreaming. I sent story after story to Jacky magazine [a UK teen magazine]. Eventually one sold and it was the best thing that has ever happened. I thought, "This really is possible!" But even if a single book hadn’t been published, I’d still be writing.
During your Beijing tour you spoke at the Western Academy of Beijing, Dulwich College and Yew Chung International School. What was it like connecting with your international audience?
The books are quite British, but the kids were really switched on. I don’t think they’re necessarily connecting with the location; they’re connecting with the plot and the feelings in the stories. And I think that’s universal – those feelings about what it’s like to be on the brink of being a teen. I want those kids to know that they can get it right, just jump in and do it! In New Zealand last year [on a book tour], a child asked me, "How do you know what it feels like to be me?" That’s possibly the best question I’ve ever been asked. I didn’t know the answer to it, but I remember what it felt like for me [when I was a child].
How do you connect so well with the pre-teen demographic?
I care about young people and I’ve always worked with that age group. Perhaps there’s a part of me that’s never progressed past that age! That age was very hard for me; I was very shy and things didn’t go well for me. I wonder if I’m trying to make things better for other kids? When you work with kids in that demographic for so long, your ear tunes in to the way they speak, and what matters to them.
During your time as an agony aunt at Shout, did you encounter any re-occurring issues?
It’s an age when things can seem quite daunting, and even small things seem insurmountable. The children don’t want to turn to their family for help because perhaps that’s the cause of the problem. Friendship, family, fitting in and bullying – they were the core issues and I’ll keep looking at them again and again in my stories.
How do you manage being both a parent and an in-demand writer?
Writing for publication, writing for deadlines – it’s a juggling act to try and keep everything together. My working day is very long and stretches into the evening, but my kids are so tolerant. They’re so important to me and you don’t get that time again with your kids.
Pre-teens face a lot of changes and challenges. How did you manage this time with your children?
The nature of parenting is "Could I have done that better?" That stage – young teens and pre-teens – is the hardest of all. Older teens will come back to you and connect with you again. But there’s a point where it’s natural for them to step back and to want to challenge and want to find their own way. It was one of the biggest challenges when I was an agony aunt – to get kids to talk to their parents when they needed to. I wrote a non-fiction book [out soon]called Letters To Cathy and it’s the book I wanted to write all those years as an agony aunt. It’s based on all the letters kids have sent me. It’s for pre-teen and young teen girls but it’s something I would have liked to read when my kids were younger, just to remember what it was like to be that age.
You’ve been a vegetarian almost your whole life. Is this an important factor in how you raise your children?
My kids are vegetarian. I think my daughter will stay vegetarian, but I think my son will do whatever is easiest once he leaves home. It’s entirely their choice. You want what you think is the best for your children – whether that’s living in the city and having access to culture and a great education, or whether that means country air and having the freedom to run around. Ideally, I think we all want a little of both.
Do you have any advice for parents who want to write?
If your dream is to be a writer, hang on to that and don’t be frightened. Writing was such a big dream of mine but I wasn’t published until I was over 40. If you told me that when I was 16, I would have been gutted! Don’t think there’s a certain age when things will or won’t happen. I’m really glad it took me a long time. I gathered a lot of life experience and now a market exists for the books I write. Carve yourself a tiny bit of time during the day, perhaps while the kids are at school, and put it at the top of your list.