Amanda Craig, The Times
funny and surprising'
John Boyne, author of The
Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
BE A CAT is my third children's book,
it's just come out.
Willow thinks life couldn't get any
worse. He's weedy, with sticky-out
ears. Horrible Gavin Needle loves
tormenting him - Barney has no idea
why. And headteacher-from-hell Miss
Whipmire seems determined to make
every second of Barney's existence
a complete misery! Worst of all, Dad
has been missing for almost a year,
and there's no sign of him ever coming
just wants to escape. To find another
life... Being a cat, for example.
A quiet, lazy cat. Things would be
so much easier - right?
about to discover just how wrong he
is. Because he's about to wake up
as a cat - and not just any cat. Gavin
are the first few pages:
careful what you wish for
Old saying, said by miserable people
is a secret I shouldn’t really
tell you, but I will because I just
can’t help it. It’s too
big. Too good. OK, sit down, get ready,
brace yourself, have some emergency
chocolate handy. Squeeze a big cushion.
Here it is:
Cats are magic.
Cats. They’re magic.
They have powers you and I can only
dream of having.
Even as I tell you this I can see
what you are thinking. You’re
thinking, No, they don’t. Cats
are just cute little pets who sleep
next to radiators all day long.
To which I would say: That’s
what they want you to think.
And now you’re thinking, These
are just words in a story written
by some author with a boring name,
and authors aren’t to be trusted
one bit because they tell lies for
And you’re a little bit right.
But stories aren’t always lies.
They are things stored in all our
imaginations – hence the name,
stories – and it is an author’s
job to point them out. And some of
the things we imagine are more true
than the facts we learn in maths,
it’s just a different kind of
truth to 76 – 15 = 61.
So, yes, every cat who prowled the
earth has the capability to do some
very special things. Such as:
The ability to understand a thousand
different animal languages (including
gerbil, antelope and the ridiculously
3. The capability of napping anywhere
– laps, kitchen floors, on top
of TVs when the theme tune to the
news is blaring at full volume . .
4. Smelling sardines from two miles
5. Purring. (Trust me, that is magic.)
6. The ability, via their whiskers,
to sense approaching dogs.
7. *****–******* ***–***
stop here, at number seven. OK, one
to six seem quite ordinary. You might
know cats do some of these things,
even if you’ve never understood
it as magic before – if you
see magic often enough it starts to
look normal. And don’t get me
wrong, this is by no means the end
of the list. Indeed, the list is so
long that it would fill ten whole
books the size of this one, and your
eyes would be bleeding by the time
you got to 9,080,652: radiator radar.
But number seven is a good place to
stop. This seventh cat-power is the
most important one, at least for the
tale I am about to tell you. (Although,
if you want to read a book about radiator-detecting
felines I highly recommend A. B. Crumb’s
exceptional Warmpaws, which is by
far the best of its type.)
Also, you might be wondering what
************* actually is. Well, we’ll
get to that. Don’t be too greedy.
You can have enough secrets in one
chapter, you know. The truth is, number
seven is quite a big deal. I had to
put asterisks instead of the actual
letters because I’ve got to
be careful how I tell you this. If
I just came out with it right now
you’d either not believe me
or you’d have too much understanding
all at once and you wouldn’t
understand the hidden dangers.
So don’t worry, I’ll tell
you about it in good time. What I
will say for now is that those humans
who get to experience this magic come
to understand its terrible and often
deadly effects, and certainly never
look at a cat in the same way again.
One of those poor souls was an unfortunate
boy called Barney Willow, and he’s
waiting for you on the very next page.
wasn’t the happiest boy in the
world, but he wasn’t the unhappiest,
either. There was a boy in New Zealand
called Dirk Drudge who was even unhappier
following a lighting strike, and a
nasty accident involving a poisonous
spider and a toilet, but this isn’t
his story. Anyway, Barney lived with
his mum in Blandford, Blandfordshire,
which is such a boring place you definitely
won’t have heard of it.
Looks-wise, Barney was about your
height but with a few more freckles.
His ears stuck out a bit, as though
his head was a portable unit which
required handles on either side. He
also had slightly curly hair which
never did as it was told, and the
kind of face old ladies liked to pinch
a little too hard, for some reason,
as if he was five, not about to turn
twelve. These same old ladies often
used to ask him, ‘Are you lost?’
when he wasn’t. He just had
that look about him.
Barney’s best – OK, only
– friend, Rissa, was a girl,
but they were on such good terms he
never brought up the subject.
His parents were divorced.
‘It wouldn’t have been
fair on you, Barney,’ his mum
used to say, ‘if we’d
have stayed together arguing like
cats and dogs.’
But that’s not the horrible
part. In fact, I’m going to
go now and let the story tell you
all that stuff. It’s just too
emotional for an author sometimes.
The horrible part was this: two hundred
and eleven days ago (Barney was counting)
his dad disappeared altogether. He’d
never seen him since, except in dreams.
Indeed, Barney dreamed about his dad
He was dreaming about him right now.
They were at a pizza restaurant, just
him and Dad, exactly like they’d
been the last time he’d seen
‘This is nice pizza,’
his dad said.
‘Dad, I don’t want to
talk about the pizza. I want to talk
‘Really nice pizza.’
But then a giant tongue came down
from the ceiling flicking the table
and the pizzas over, and rubbing its
roughness against Barney’s face.
And then Barney woke up. Vaguely remembered
it was his birthday.
‘No, Guster, get off!’
Guster was his dog. A King Charles
spaniel whom his dad had found at
a rescue centre, and who had given
Barney absolutely no hint of his plan
to wake him up every morning by jumping
on his bed and licking his whole face
until it was sticky with dog saliva.
‘Guster, please! I’m still
Of course, this wasn’t true.
It was just wishful thinking. But
Barney spent his whole life wishful
thinking, which was his trouble, as
you’ll soon find out.
Today was his twelfth birthday, but
that wasn’t something he was
too excited about. After all, this
was the first birthday he’d
had without his dad being there.
If that wasn’t bad enough it
was also the first birthday he’d
had at his rubbish new school. And
school meant Miss Whipmire, the head
teacher from hell. He didn’t
know if that was her exact address,
but it definitely shared the same
postcode. Anyway, Miss Whipmire was
horrible. And she hated every single
pupil at Blandford High. ‘I
see my job as a gardener,’ she’d
once said in assembly. ‘And
you are the weeds. My job is to cut
you down and pull you up and make
everything as quiet and perfect as
it would be if the school had no horrible
children in it.’ But while Miss
Whipmire didn’t like any child,
she seemed to hate Barney even more
than the others.
Only last week he had got into trouble
when he and Gavin Needle had been
sent to her office.
Gavin Needle had stuck a drawing pin
on Barney’s seat, and he had
yelped in pain. Their geography teacher
had told them both to go to Miss Whipmire’s
office. But when they got there Miss
Whipmire sent Gavin back to class
and concentrated all her evilness
on Barney. If it had been anyone else’s
behind that had been pin-punctured
then Miss Whipmire would have delighted
in the opportunity to humiliate Gavin
(or ‘Weedle’, as she called
him), but not when that behind belonged
Which meant Gavin was free to carry
on sticking drawing pins on Barney’s
chair. Or, if he had no drawing pins,
just pulling back the chair seconds
before Barney sat down. Oh yes, Gavin
had read the ‘Chair Torture’
chapter in The Bully’s Handbook
at least a hundred times.
So, between Miss Whipmire and Gavin
Needle, Barney didn’t want to
think about what lay in store today.
He just wanted to keep his eyes closed
and pretend it was still night-time.
Which was hard, given that his face
was being licked by a rough, wet tongue.
Barney pulled the duvet over his head
but even that didn’t stop the
spaniel, whose narrow nose and long
tongue nuzzled into the darkness to
And then, as every morning, his mum
urged him out of bed.
‘Come on, Barney! I know it’s
your birthday but it’s time
to get up. I’m going to be late
for the library!’
So Barney got out of bed, watched
his mum whirling about at her normal
hyper-speed. Then he washed, brushed
and dressed everything that needed
washing, brushing and dressing, and
In the hallway Guster nudged against
his knees. Barney looked down and
saw his dog’s brown floppy ears
and rather proud, upturned nose.
‘All right, boy. Walkies.’
illustrations are by the wonderful