Coventry-born author Cathy Cassidy finds inspiration in cultivating friendships, writes Lorne Jackson.
Being an immigrant isn’t easy. Struggling to understand a strange language; being confronted by suspicious and sometimes hostile faces; having to learn new traditions; adapt to exotic climates.
And that’s just the wrenching move from Birmingham to Wolverhampton.
Imagine what it’s like to travel from a distant country to a new home in the UK. Which just happens to be the subject of Cathy Cassidy’s new book.
The Coventry-born children’s author regularly tackles difficult and controversial topics in her fiction. In her latest offering, Angel Cake, she writes about a young Polish girl struggling to adapt to life in the UK.
“There’s a lot of negative stuff being written and said about immigration,” says Cathy. “I wanted to redress the balance. Describe how it can be for someone who is coming from the other side of the argument; who has to try and fit in, which can be incredibly difficult.”
Cathy, 46, was inspired during one of her many school visits, where she talks to readers. This was when she met a Polish girl, who wrote her a note describing how terribly difficult she found settling in Britain.
“It was only a little piece,” says Cathy. “Just a couple of paragraphs about her first days in the UK. Since English wasn’t her first language, the spelling and grammar wasn’t perfect.
“But her emotions jumped off the page. It was so easy to empathise with how she felt. Which is when I decided on the theme for my latest book.
“I didn’t catch the name of that Polish girl, but ever since, I’ve been trying to track her down so that I can tell her she was the inspiration for my novel.”
Angel Cake is the story of Anya, a 13 year old who once dreamed of moving to Britain to start a new life.
But now she is cowering in a school where nobody understands her, and is left to dream of Polish summer skies, and the far off Eastern European country that was once called home.
Then Anya meets bad boy Dan. He’s no angel, but she’s sure there’s a sweeter side to him. And when her life falls apart at school, Anya realizes she’s not alone.
So how can Dan be such a danger when being with him is such a darned delight?
What Cathy has done in this fiction is taken the traditional teenage emotions of being a misunderstood outsider and attached it to the greater alienation of coping with the immigrant experience.
Cathy herself has made dramatic geographical moves in her life, having left the busy barge and bustle of Coventry’s streets for the empty vistas of Galloway in Scotland, where she lives with her husband, Liam and two teenage children, Calum and Caitlin.
Although she adores the wide open spaces and finds them conducive for her solitary vocation, she does admit that she misses the Midlands.
Especially since one of her bestest buddies lives here.
“I’ve got two best friends, and neither of them live near me,” she says.
“Though that’s not surprising, since not many people live near me!
“Once you become an adult, it’s harder to keep in regular touch with your best friends. Luckily both my friendships are rock solid. One of my friends is in France, the other is still living in Coventry. So although we don’t see each other much, having friends in distance places give me an excuse to visit sunny France, and return to, er, sunny Coventry!”
Friendship isn’t just an important part of Cathy’s life; it’s also an essential ingredient of her novels.
Which is why she decided to start her very own National Best Friends Day, which took place on Saturday.
The idea behind it was to promote friendship with a range of events and competitions up and down the country in libraries and bookshops.
Every Waterstone’s in the mainland of the UK was involved, and the author is hoping to expand the idea in years to come.
“It’s the third year it’s been running,” she says. “I think friendship is really important for kids. Sometimes youngsters only have one best friend. And if they move away, or they fall out, it can be very lonely. That’s why I encourage them to have as many friends as possible.”
Cathy, who used to work as an art teacher before becoming a full time author, is one of a growing number of modern children’s authors tackling difficult and controversial themes.
In the past she has written about divorce and alcoholism.
“But I’ll always have a happy ending,” she says. “Though that’s very different from a fairy tale ending. It always has to be realistic.
“Kids are bombarded with messages from all sorts of media, these days. They may be reading gossip mags, which aren’t really packaged for them.
“That means they are aware of aspects of the adult world, though they aren’t really getting the whole picture.
“Ultimately, I always want the reader to know that friendship and family can get you through the difficult times. And there is hope if you always try and be yourself.
“I firmly believe there is magic in the world – it’s just not a Harry Potter type of magic.”
* Angel Cake by Cathy Cassidy is published by Puffin (£10.99).