Coffee & Catch-Up

One of the UK’s best-loved presenters, X Factor frontman Dermot O’Leary, is just about to launch his third action-packed animal adventure for children inspired by his own rescue cats and wondering what they get up to at night!

Interview by Nadia Duncan

Q) You have said that books and storytelling played a huge part of your own happy childhood. What are your memories of that?

Both my parents are big readers but my dad is a born storyteller. He read us old Irish fairy stories that he was passing on to the next generation. I remember being captivated by the magic of folk tales like The Children of Lir and Tír na n-Óg. Fairy stories are brilliant to read aloud to kids; full of magic and bravery and love.

 Q) What was your favourite story as a child and which other children’s authors have influenced you?

I remember the page-turning joy and the dialogue from Roald Dahl’s books – Fantastic Mr Fox was always my favourite. I read it independently when I was about six and that was what got me hooked on reading. Apart from Dahl, I really loved Raymond Briggs – The Snowman, and Father Christmas especially. I like the way he never talked down to kids; Father Christmas is always a bit tired and a bit belligerent, he wasn’t a genial old man.

Q) You’ve enjoyed great success with your first two children’s books and we’re so excited about the third installment – where we meet your new kitten Socks for the first time. What’s the plot line?

After months of keeping London safe from notorious animal bad guys, Toto the Ninja Cat is going on a well-earned holiday to the world’s most famous music festival – Catstonbury! But an evil villain has a dastardly plan to hypnotise the crowd when a world-famous band is on stage, turning them into evil minions. How can Toto possibly prevent the catastrophe when everyone thinks the band is the cat’s pyjamas? It will take all Toto’s ninja skills – and some help from a friendly otter – to save the day…

 Q) Kids can be the biggest critics, why do you love writing for children?

When I had the idea for the Toto the Ninja Cat books, I knew they’d be great for kids. The great thing about reading with kids is that their imagination brings text to life. When I read with my niece Josette when she was younger, I could see her paint pictures in her mind. It’s fantastic to write for children, knowing that their interpretation of the story if going to be so much more than the words I’ve actually written. I love adding in a level for the parent reader too. Roald Dahl was always so good at that.

“It’s fantastic to write for children, knowing that their interpretation of the story if going to be so much more than the words I’ve actually written.”

 Q) If you could become Toto for one night, where would you go and what would you get up to?

I’d go to the Sour Saucer, the bar down by the River Thames where the criminals of the animal world in my Toto the Ninja Cat books hang out. I’d go incognito and drink a glass of the finest Jersey Cream and listen out for intel. Or I might go to Catstonbury, but at a time when it hadn’t been infiltrated by a master criminal!

 Q) You are a patron of Cinemagic, which is celebrating an incredible 30 years of their TV & Film Festival for Children this autumn. How did you get involved and what would your advice be to any child hoping to have a future career in the industry?  

Cinemagic simply wrote to me and asked if I’d get involved. They’re a wonderful charity so I’m very proud to be their patron. My advice to any child hoping to have a future career in the industry is to start at the bottom and just work your way up.

 Q) You are a TV and radio star, however you are clearly passionate about, and want to encourage, a love of reading in children. Why do you think it’s so important that screens don’t replace books completely?

There’s an immersive and uniquely personal nature to reading a book that you just don’t get from anything else and that experience is so good for kids. The new UK Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell explains it so wonderfully when she says that books are magic and ‘offer magical things that films aren’t as good at creating in children: empathy, creativity and intelligence.’

Toto the Ninja Cat and the Superstar Catastrophe by Dermot O’Leary, illustrated by Nick East, is publishing Sept 19 HB, £9.99 from Hodder Children’s Books.

Dermot photo ©Ray Burmiston, Toto & Silver illustrated ©Nick East

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