Barney thinks being a cat would be easier than being a twelve-year-old boy. But when his feline fantasy comes true, the fur starts flying in this darkly hilarious and heartwarming tale.
Cats have it made. They laze in sun patches, are showered with affection by loving humans, can cough up hairballs wherever they want, and never have to wonder why their dad disappeared one day and never came back. It’s clearly much easier to be a cat than to be a middle school boy.
So when Barney Willow wishes he could be a cat, and gets his wish, he should be thrilled. Except he’s not. He discovers that not all cats are cute and cuddly, and some of them are downright evil. He discovers that his own mother can’t see past the whiskers to recognize her darling son. Worst of all, he discovers that his life is in grave danger…and he doesn’t have eight lives to spare.
To Be a Cat 1. A Secret Here 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. Okay, 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.
But 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 just 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 all authors aren’t to be trusted one bit, because they tell lies for a living.
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 the author’s job to point them out. And some of the things we imagine are more true than the facts we learn in math, it’s just a different kind of truth to 76 - 15 = 61.
So yes, every cat who ever prowled the earth is capable of doing some very special things. Such as:
1. The ability to understand a thousand different animal languages (including gerbil, antelope, and the ridiculously complicated goldfish).
3. The capability of napping anywhere—laps, kitchen floors, on top of TVs when the theme song to the news is blaring at full volume.
4. Smelling sardines from two miles away.
5. Purring. (Trust me, that is magic.)
6. The ability, via their whiskers, to sense approaching dogs.
7. *****-******* ***-*** *************.
Let’s stop here, at number seven. Okay, 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. But 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 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. Though you can’t have enough secrets in one chapter, you know. Not usually. But 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 is that those humans who get to experience it, 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.
Matt Haig is the bestselling author of several children’s books and novels, including The Radleys, winner of the ALA Alex Award. An alumnus of Hull University and Leeds, his work has been translated into twenty-nine languages. He lives in York with his wife, UK novelist Andrea Semple, and their two children.
"Peppered with quirky illustrations, the story features extreme characters and circumstances in the tradition of Roald Dahl.... Haig's cautionary tale is a unique one, and Barney's struggles will be understood by readers who are uncomfortable in their own skin."
– School Library Journal, July 2013
"Barney wasn’t all that happy as a 12-year-old boy. First his dad moved out of the house, then disappeared altogether. His mum seems rushed and preoccupied. The school bully victimizes him mercilessly, and the principal regards him as her personal enemy. Still, after wishing to be a cat and magically becoming one, Barney desperately wants his old life back. Wishing got him into his predicament, but it’s just not enough to get him out of it. The plot takes some unexpected turns...the telling is engaging, and its generally light tone gives readers hope, even at the darkest moments. Barney makes a sympathetic protagonist, both as a boy and as a cat. Witty and sometimes exaggerated ink drawings with gray washes capture human expressions and feline body language with equal facility, and the jacket art is sure to attract readers."