'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Sunday 10 January 2010

Angel Cake by Cathy Cassidy

Title: Angel Cake

Author: Cathy Cassidy

Publisher: Puffin (Penguin), A$14.95

Format: Softcover

Language: English

ISBN: 9780141325170

For ages: 8+

Type: Junior Fiction

About: It’s been a very long time since I’ve read a young fiction novel. So long, in fact, that when I finished reading Angel Cake by British author Cathy Cassidy, I felt thirteen again. Really. It was like stepping back in time, feeling all those adolescent emotions once more. It also felt wonderful to be reminded of the raw power of friendship in the teen years – a commodity that can become so complicated and delicate as we age.

Admittedly, Angel Cake isn’t aimed at 40-something women. It’s aimed at 9 to 14 year old girls, yet the book was oddly compelling to this over-the-hill reader. Indeed, Cassidy recently told Australian Women Online that she frequently receives emails from older teens and even parents, complimenting her books – something the author says is a bit of a buzz.

“It’s a real privilege to get such direct feedback from my readers,” said Cassidy, who says her website – cathycassidy.com – has become a real vehicle to connect with her readers. “It’s very interactive. [Readers] can post reviews, ask questions, send in artwork of a fave character, post a poem or enter the writing comp and check out my tips for young writers.”

Cassidy admits the best part about this website interaction is that she gets to know how kids feel about her books. “Kids are very honest and direct, so their comments mean a lot to me.”

This popular author’s latest fan offering follows the tale of a young Polish girl who moves to Liverpool, England under the promise of a new job for her father. Of course, like most upheavals, things don’t run smoothly for Anya. Her younger sister Kazia seems to be faring fine, but Anya hates her new high school. The students are disrespectful, have accents as thick as mud and have little patience for Anya’s English skills.

It seems the only way Anya can cope is to withdraw into her own world, one which is touched by the appearance of the long-lashed and rebellious Dan, who treats teachers with irreverence, sets the classroom on fire, and disappears on long sabbaticals from school. But is Dan really an untamable rebel or just a regular guy whose unruly actions are a subtle cry for help?

When Anya and her new friend Frankie spot Dan in a pair of angel wings handing out cupcakes for his mum’s new cake shop, the truth about Dan’s family life begins to unfold, and an unlikely romance blossoms – one that may just help Anya settle into her new life after all. Naturally, the course of true love never did run smooth, and Anya is in for a few more challenges along the way – is Dan really the boy he appears to be?

The relationship between teens is a focus in Cassidy’s latest book, and it’s something both parents and kids can relate to and learn from. Angel Cake is a neat balancing act for readers in the vastly divergent world that is tween/teendom. Penned with enough prickles and hooks to keep teens interested, and enough clean innocence to attract tweens, the book is fun, entertaining and thought-provoking, especially in regard to the subject of ‘fitting in’.

As the mother of teenagers, Cassidy understands how important friendships are to the wellbeing of this age group, especially those who are not part of the ‘in’ group or who are different in some way.

“At that age more than any other, we want to fit in, to be accepted, and for those kids who are on the outside, it can be very hard,” admits Cassidy. “I like to create eccentric, unusual characters that encourage children to look beyond the obvious… the ‘popular’ kids are not necessarily the right kids for you!” Cassidy believes that being yourself is what really counts, and this is how kids can form strong and lasting friendships, no matter their age.

In fact, the friendship theme runs through all of Cassidy’s books, and her commitment to helping readers understand the importance of healthy friendships extends to her website where she’s encouraging kids worldwide to sign up to her ‘Friendship Charter’.

“It involves signing up online to keep six basic promises to keep your friendship strong. They are simple ideas, but important – and signing up is a great way to say ‘no’ to bullying and ‘yes’ to the power of friendship.”

It’s clear that Cassidy is an author committed to her work. She began her writing journey early – at the age of eight, she penned her first picture book for her little brother, about a very tall sunflower.

“It lasted about a day and then he chewed it up…” recalls the author. “He was only two!” The author also loved making comics featuring picture stories, features and competitions, which she’d try to sell to friends at school. “[This was] before the days of photocopiers, so I never exactly made a fortune!” she laughs. “I love art almost as much as writing and did a degree in Illustration at Liverpool Art College, which was cool.”

Cassidy has worked as a fiction editor for Jackie magazine and has also been an art teacher and agony aunt, but it’s writing that she loves best and she does that so well, a 13-year-old girl recently asked her the most amazing question – ‘How do you know what it feels like to be me?’

“I’m not sure I know the answer,” laughs the author, “But it’s partly that I remember well how it felt for me to be that age, and I have teens of my own and have always worked with the teen/tween age group. I care, I suppose. And I love to create a character and step into her shoes and see and feel and experience the world as she would.”

The inspiration for Cassidy’s stories come from the every day life. “From little experiences, conversations and events that start me thinking and dreaming about a particular idea or theme,” she says. “Having said that, the books are very definitely fiction… I love creating new characters and looking at the world through their eyes.”

Asked why she began writing for this particular age group, it becomes clear that the author just enormously values kids in the teen age bracket.

“They are just so inspiring, not children any more but not adults either – their whole lives are spread out before them and anything and everything is still possible.” Cassidy says she didn’t have a clear plan to write for that particular age group; it was just the way the stories come out. “Maybe I never quite grew up?” she laughs.

It must be so much fun having a mum that never quite grew up. Cassidy’s own children greatly enjoy her books and are always the author’s first readers, giving their mum fantastic feedback.

“If they suggest changing something, I change it. They are the experts on teen culture, after all!”
In a slight departure from the norm, Cassidy has recently released the first in a new series of books aimed at younger children, aged 7 to 11. Shine On Daizy Star will be out in Australia and New Zealand this July and is the first book Cassidy has illustrated herself.

“It’s kind of special to me,” she told AWO. “There’s also quite a bit of the 10-year-old me in the main character, Daizy – crazy, creative, chaotic – but full of big dreams.”

Cassidy’s very first book, Dizzy, was published in 2004 after the author felt driven to write something to inspire her kids.

“My daughter used to be a very picky reader,” she says, “So she was in many ways the reader I had in mind when I started my first book five years ago. I wanted to write something she wouldn’t be able to put down, something that would hook her in but also make her think, dream, ask questions, and maybe even understand life a little more.”

Cassidy’s daughter is an avid reader now, and still loves her mum’s books. As a writer’s kids are possibly their harshest critic, this is testament to a great read indeed. Now with almost a dozen successful books under her belt, it seems this talented author is truly having her angel cake… and eating it, too.

Read more about Cathy Cassidy’s books at cathycassidy.com, where you can sign up for the Friendship Charter!
This article was first published on Australian Women Online.