Q&A with Dermot O’Leary

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Toto the cat and her brother Silver live footloose and fancy-free in a townhouse in London. Toto is almost totally blind, and learned to trust her senses from a ninja cat-master who taught her back in Italy where they were born. By day, Toto and Silver seem to be ordinary cats, but by night, they love to have adventures!

Toto the Ninja Cat and the Great Snake Escape is the debut children’s book by the much-loved TV presenter and host of a BBC Radio 2 show, Dermot O’Leary. With brilliant black and white illustrations, and gentle themes of friendship, inclusivity and winning in the face of adversity, this is a wonderful story inspired by a surprise addition to Dermot’s own family. Here, the author talks about writing his debut children’s book, his zoological inspiration, and his memories of reading as a child.

Dermot was interviewed by Damian Kelleher.

1) Hi Dermot! Your book is all about your real-life cats. Can you tell us more about them?
We have a little place in Italy in the middle of nowhere, in Puglia. It’s wild countryside and when we first got there we had a lot of rats. Then this cat took up residence – we called her Plucksy after one of the guests – and she was more stray than feral so you could stroke her, but you couldn’t really pick her up. But as time went on, she got more tame and ended up sleeping on our bed which we loved. Then we went back about four years ago and Plucksy was heavily pregnant. I had to come back a day early for work but my wife Dee facetimed me to tell me she was having her kittens right there and then – in our room, and specifically in my pillowcase!

We were going to get a dog that year but then we had these four kittens and Dee had stayed up all night, doing this deft piece of cat midwifery. So we took two of the kittens and our neighbours took the other two. We had the firstborn, Silver, and Toto, the runt of the litter. Our friends looked after them out there in Italy and eventually we got them over here.

2) Did you have pets when you were a kid?
No cats, but we had a rabbit growing up, and I was devastated when it died. The greatest moment of treachery in my whole life was when my mum and dad moved house from the village I grew up in and they said I could have a dog. Then as soon as they moved they said no. Oh it was awful!

3) Did you enjoy reading when you were younger?
Oh yes, and I remember the joy of page-turning and the dialogue from Roald Dahl books – Fantastic Mr. Fox was always my favourite. Mr. Fox is so charismatic, quick, and clever in outwitting farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean!

3) We love Brian the King Cobra’s escape from London Zoo! Did you visit the snake house at London Zoo?
I go to London Zoo all the time. The great thing about living round the corner from the zoo is that whenever nieces and god kids and cousins come to stay, it’s a really good day out on your doorstep!

4) Like the hero of the story, Toto is blind in real life, isn’t she?
We worked out quite quickly that Toto couldn’t really see that well. We took her to the vet and found she had no red blood cells in her eyes. They told us the camera is there, but there’s no film in it, so she can see breaks in light but not much else.

We noticed really quickly though that Toto had lightning fast reactions; if you were playing around she could just lash out with her claws, super swift. I thought this would make a lovely idea for a book: that one cat is a lovely, mild-mannered kitten during the day ­ – and then a Ninja by night!

For a chance to win a signed copy of Toto the Ninja Cat and the Great Snake Escape, enter our competition by the 25th of November!

Toto the Ninja Cat and the Great Snake Escape, written by Dermot O’Leary and illustrated by Nick East, is available now, published by Hodder Children’s Books.