Debi Gliori on A Cat Called Waverly

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A poignant and unforgettable story about homelessness and enduring friendship from an internationally renowned picture book creator

Debi tells us why she was inspired to write the story for children.

It’s a tricky balancing act, weaving fact and fiction into what I fondly hope is a seamless story. 

Fact one, A Cat Called Waverley is based on the life of a real person: Darren Greenfield who was a war veteran. 

Fact two ; A Cat Called Waverley is firmly set in a real place: the iconic city of Edinburgh.  

However, the main character is a complete fiction. The cat called Waverley? 

I made him up.

There are two reasons I did this. The first one was to sweeten the bitterness of a story about a vulnerable young man who, having little success as a street musician, joined the army, went to war and returned much later in such a damaged and desperate state that he became homeless on the streets of Edinburgh. The addition of his fictional ginger cat, also homeless, added a poignant counterpoint to a story of war and the damage done. The cat’s story, of spending years being homeless in Edinburgh, also echoed that of his beloved human, serving in some far-off desert war, in ways which I hope will spark meaty subject matter for discussion in a classroom context. 

The other reason I invented a cat? If we have to develop more kindness and empathy as a species, and all recent evidence points in this direction, then let it be a two-way process of development to be shared between adults and children. Children, on first exposure to the sight of homeless street people, are curious about why anyone would want to live their lives in such a precarious fashion, at the mercy of the elements, down in the dirt, begging for money. Adults, being more accustomed to witnessing such injustices, are made to feel deeply uncomfortable by having to explain why such inequalities exist. With the aid of stories like A Cat Called Waverley, children and adults can learn from each other, but only if we engage in honest and truthful discussions about the way our societies work ( or fail to work). This is challenging subject matter, but by using the cat’s story as a form of proxy, it enables us to enter into such discussions from a place of safety. Just as I used an animal’s story ( a fox, in ‘No Matter What’) to discuss the subject of death, I deliberately used the cat’s story to discuss homelessness.

A Cat Called Waverley

There is also an aesthetic reason for the inclusion of Waverley the cat. I drew his owner, Donald,with red hair and a spray of freckles across his face. This was a deliberate decision, designed to ensure that a reader could pick out Donald from his fellow soldiers, even when he was wearing a helmet that obscured his red hair. It seemed logical to draw Waverley as a ginger tom, to allow him to also stand out from the monochromatic grey charcoal drawings that characterise the illustrations for the book. And that colour ( or lack of colour) choice was also deliberate, because there are always shades of grey in every situation. Seeing the moral choices and beliefs that we humans hold so dear in uncompromising black and white is one of the reasons we end up going to war in the first place. Grey areas, and shades thereof, are places where discussion is still possible, where sides haven’t been taken and where change can happen. 

For the millions of homeless people living on our streets, that change cannot happen quickly enough.

Debi Gliori will be doing a virtual event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 26th August.

Debi Gliori’s  A Cat Called Waverley is published by the brilliant Otter-Barry Books.