This week I’m recommending a captivating story about a boy who is transformed into a cat. Matt Haig’s`To Be A Cat’ was published in 2012 and has charming illustrations by Pete Williamson. It is marked on the cover as being suitable for readers of 9+. Please concentrate on the plus bit rather than the nine. Haig has written acclaimed science fiction novels for adults (`The Humans’ ) and young adults (`Echo Boy’) on the theme of what it means to be human but in my opinion `To Be A Cat’ is as good or better than both of these books. Paperback editions of `To Be A Cat’ are easy to find but if you’re embarrassed to be seen reading a children’s story, just order it on your Kindle. No-one need ever know…

In the boring town of Blandford lives a boy called Barney Willow. His parents are divorced and Barney lives with his Mum and his dog, Guster. Two hundred and eleven days before the story starts, Barney’s Dad disappeared. On his twelfth birthday, Barney is bitterly disappointed to hear nothing from his Dad and his Mum has to work. Barney’s best friend Rissa ( a very tall girl with `Hair like a pirate’) does give him a handmade card but the rest of his birthday is `Totally Terrible’. Barney is tormented at school by a gang of bullies led by Gavin Needle and he unfairly gets into trouble with the child-hating head teacher, Miss Whipmire. No wonder he detests his life and fervently wishes that he could swap places with a cat…

Barney wakes up the next day as a small black and white cat and soon realizes how wrong he was to think that cats have lovely lazy lives with no worries. He has a lot of worries. His Mum and his dog don’t recognize him. He’s thrown out of his home, while a cat in his body goes to school in his place. Barney is now a `no-hoper’, a former human trapped in a cat body. He’s pitied by `firesides’ (cats who are content living with people) and chased by the vicious street cats known as `swipers’, who fear nothing but the legendary Terrorcat. While Rissa is on the trail of Barney’s missing father, Barney is uncovering Miss Whipmire’s dark secret and learning why she wants him dead. With Rissa’s help, can Barney survive long enough to seize his only chance of being turned back into a boy?

`To Be A Cat’ is what I would call a `what if?’ fantasy. Everything stems from the one question – what if people could become cats and cats could become people? This in itself isn’t an original premise. I’ve already recommended Fantasy novels in which a cat suddenly becomes a woman (`Fudoki’, March 2014) and a boy learns important life-lessons by being transformed into a series of animals (`The Sword in the Stone’, December 2012). What makes this book different is Haig’s thinking on why cats and humans might want to change places. Humanity seems to be divided  into dog-loving people and cat-loving people. I’m a cat person. Judging from the number of adorable dogs in his books, Haig is a  dog-person but he still has a shrewd understanding of cat psychology. He knows about cats’ contempt for human rules, their single-minded devotion to their own comfort, and the fact that they will do almost anything for tinned sardines. The Siamese cat who has become Miss Whipmire has been traumatized by casual human cruelty. She wants power over her own destiny, or at least to be able to open tins herself. She’s fiercely protective of her only kitten and totally ruthless towards everyone else – a truly terrifying Fantasy villainess. As someone brought up in a house full of Siamese cats, I found her behaviour perfectly plausible.

Much of what happens to cat-Barney is very funny, especially in the Needle household, where he’s treated like a toy by Gavin’s ghastly little sister, but there is an underlying seriousness to his adventures. Barney and Rissa have both been picked on for being different but Rissa sees this as meaning that she’s special. Besides, she genuinely doesn’t care what other people think of her. Barney does not have Rissa’s self-confidence. He has a `glass half empty’ outlook and he’s inherited from his father a tendency to run away from difficulties and responsibilities. Becoming a cat, gives Barney the opportunity to find out how imperfect other people’s home lives are and learn to appreciate the good things about his own situation. In order to break the spell, Barney has to want his own life back but becoming human again means accepting an inevitable mixture of success and failure, hope and fear, happiness and sorrow.

Matt Haig is an author who has suffered from severe depression himself. He `wrote himself out of depression’ by creating stories about people who find reasons to go on living, however bleak things may seem. His books celebrate the often taken for granted pleasures of friendship and family life and the amazing capacity of humans to love one another. So, why read `To Be A Cat’, rather than Haig’s novels for older readers? For a start, the conventions of children’s fiction allow Haig to insert a delightful version of himself into the narrative. As `the author’  he addresses the reader directly  – `…stories aren’t always lies. They are things stored in all our imaginations’ – and keeps interrupting the story to point out the important bits, even though he has promised not to – `I’m not good with promises, they make me itchy’.

The book still has a strong plot (there’s a brilliant twist concerning the Terrorcat) and a fast pace. Children’s authors have to condense their ideas until they can be expressed in the very bones of the story and that often makes them come across more strongly. You can’t get away with sloppy story-telling when writing for children and you must never, ever be boring. Another thing you can’t get away with is sentimentality. Some people find Haig’s adult novels a bit sugary and sentimental. `To Be A Cat’ has a pleasing sharpness about it. The plot may be fantastical but the human and animal characters are presented with realistic flaws. Consequently there cannot be a simplistic family-reunited happy ending. `But that’s what life is like sometimes. It has bits of sadness in it, splinters in the happiness.’

If I still haven’t convinced you to try `To Be A Cat’, go to Haig’s excellent website ( and look at his `10 reasons why it is okay to read YA’. He makes a strong argument for the value of Children’s and Young Adult literature. Until next time…


P.S. I think I may have changed places with my Birman cat years ago. It explains a lot.