Wirral-based Cathy Cassidy began her career as an agony aunt for Jackie and Shout but as the author of over 20 young adult books she says she receives more letters for advice than ever. Her latest book, Looking Glass Girl (Puffin, £12.99), is a celebration of Alice in Wonderland, 150 years after it was written, and tackles teenage bullying.
Why do you think Alice in Wonderland is so enduring?
I think the story and its imagery have lodged themselves very deeply in our imaginations, almost as if Alice were a fairy story rather than a classic children’s book. If I ever ask children about their favourite fairy tales, they always mention Alice. I think that imagery is so strong – the little girl falling into a world where everything is upside-down, where things veer dangerously from fantastical to frightening. Love it or loathe it, one thing we cannot do is ignore it.
Is there a risk that the original Lewis Carroll story will become irrelevant for young readers?
I don’t think so. The story was probably the first Victorian book to be written with the child’s enjoyment in mind, rather than with the idea of preaching morality or manners, so it remains refreshingly child-like. Plus, the many film interpretations ensure the imagery is a part of our culture now. I think Alice is here to stay!
Why did you think the tale was ripe for reimagining?
I wanted to write something inspired by the original story, and the 150th anniversary year of the original publication seemed like as good a time as any. My editor knew it was one of my favourite books from childhood and threw me the challenge of writing something linked to it, and I kind of like a challenge!
There is a darkness in Looking Glass Girl that is absent from your other work. How else did adapting a story differ from realising your own ideas?
There is darkness in my other books, in that they do tackle difficult subjects, but it’s true to say that Looking Glass Girl is darker. I was looking at bullying and how far a bully might go to hurt someone, and why. Looking Glass Girl is not an adaptation of the original Alice, nor a re-imagining – it’s an original 21st century novel about a group of girls who go to an Alice-themed sleepover which goes very, very wrong. I still felt very much that I was writing my own story, just referencing the imagery from Alice. The story starts with something very dramatic and the rest of the story is told in flashbacks, from several different viewpoints. It’s edge-of-your-seat stuff – it was a lot of fun to write!
You are also releasing Fortune Cookie – the final instalment in The Chocolate Box series. Does it have any surprises for loyal readers?
Of course! Fortune Cookie is told from the viewpoint of a brand new family member, for starters, and it ties up all the loose ends in the stories of the Chocolate Box sisters too. It was a bittersweet book for me because I knew I was saying goodbye to the series and to the characters I’d been so attached to for so long.
Did you feel you had exhausted the series or could you have mustered any more?
It was the right place to stop. I am not a fan of extending a series on and on just because it happens to be popular. There are always other stories within a series you could explore, but sometimes it’s better to leave a bit of mystery!
You used to work as an agony aunt for Jackie and Shout. Do you view your books as an extension of that work?
Not at all. The books are about stories, fiction, creating characters and putting them into situations. Yes, the characters will have problems to solve, but that goes for every plot. Problems are what build a story. Having said that, while I am writing fiction, my readers are identifying with characters and situations and reaching out to me for help and advice because of that. I get far more emails and letters from kids asking for help and advice on personal issues now than I ever did when I was an agony aunt. I wrote a book, Letters To Cathy, based on those questions; it’s a kind of girl’s guide to growing up, but the emotional stuff rather than the physical. Young people have a harder time than ever making sense of the world, and if my books help in any way than I am very glad of that.