Fanny the Gipsy Hill Cat. The inspiration behind The Railway Kitten by Holly Webb
Posted in Author/Illustrator Posts on Thu, 2 March at 9.50 am
Children at book events often ask me if all the cats and dogs in my Animal Stories series belong to me. I have to explain that I could never have written the books without the wonderful animals I’ve been lucky enough to share my life with, but I haven’t actually had fifty-five different puppies and kittens. (The fifty-fifth book in the series is published in April!) Even though I did grow up with one cat, two dogs, twelve gerbils, a mouse, three hamsters, a terrapin, some stick insects and a canary (not absolutely all at the same time).
Lots of the books are actually based on my own pets – Lost in the Snow,
the very first book in the series was inspired by Rosie, the stray kitten who adopted my family a little while before I was born. Our clever kitten was a family story, and I have such strong memories of making up adventures for her with my mum. When my editor at Little Tiger suggested writing a lost cat book, seventeen years ago, those stories were still in my head. In every story the poor kitten was having a terrible time – she was lost, stuck in the snow, hungry, being chased by a dog – but it was OK, because I knew that she was actually downstairs, probably curled up on the back of the sofa (or letting my dad feed her cheese and onion crisps, which were her favourite treat). I wanted that drama and danger in my books, along with the security of a happy ending.
Now I have three very spoilt cats (I’ve just rescued a coffee cup with milk in from my eldest cat, who thinks food tastes better stolen). They’ve inspired five books between the three of them so far, as well as giving me constant reminders on cat behaviour while trying to sit on my laptop. But lots of my books are based on stories from friends, and even from readers. I had the most brilliant email from a fan called Edie a few years ago, telling me about her kitten who’d been rescued from a barbed wire fence, and named Barbie! I read it thinking, wow, this is a book! That email became The Rescued Kitten.
The Railway Kitten came from being told another wonderful rescue story. My agent Julia told me about the cat at Gipsy Hill Station near where she lives – actually just up the road from Norwood, where I grew up. I loved the idea of a station cat who liked to greet all the passengers, and wondered about putting a station cat into a book. However, I’d actually already written The Forgotten Puppy, about a dog
who accidentally goes on a train journey, and I didn’t want the stories to be too similar, so I made notes
and stored the idea away. (The Forgotten Puppy was inspired by a reader who told me at a book event about her station staff dad finding a dog on one of his trains!) A while later, Julia gave me an update on Fanny the Gipsy Hill Cat – she’d been hit by a car and badly injured, but a crowdfunder had raised the money for her operation in a matter of hours. It was such a wonderful example of love. Fanny was actually saved by community donations a second time in 2020, when she had a serious infection and needed veterinary care.
Real animal stories are a fantastic starting point – but I often have to make a lot of changes to make the original story work for a children’s book. For The Railway Kitten I really wanted to add child characters. Scarlett and Abbie are nine-year-old girls who love seeing Whiskers at the station every day on their way to school – they’re really worried when she disappears, and they’re the ones to discover the kitten after her accident. They’re desperate to save her, but the kitten’s owners need help to fund her surgery. The girls are the ones to suggest fundraising, and they make posters to put all round the station to tell everyone who loves Whiskers what’s happening. After the surgery Whiskers’s owners aren’t able to give her the care she needs, and Scarlett adopts her. The details about Whiskers’s operation and aftercare actually came from my own cat Milly, who was hit by a car a few years ago (the third book she’s had a major part in!)
I’m so excited for The Railway Kitten to be published – it’s a story that I’ve been thinking about for such a long time!
Photo credit: Charlotte Knee
To hear more from Holly Webb, then watch this interview filmed last year at Holly’s home.