One of the 100 best children’s books of the 21st century, SF Said’s Varjak Paw follows the adventures of a Mesopotamian Blue cat as he escapes his stultifying purebred family to find his way in the world.
The partnership with SF Said has proved to be equally fruitful and the pair have gone on to work on an even better sequel, the Outlaw Varjak Paw, and a mind expanding sci-fi novel, Phoenix. McKean’s illustrations work dynamically with the text, sometimes spreading often over multiple pages to build moments of drama.
Most revelatory are the dream sequences in which Varjak meets Jalal, the legendary ancestor of the Mesopotamian Blue cats who teaches him the secret of ‘the way’, seven skills which help turn the kitten into a true hero.
Speaking to me for the Deeper Reading children’s books podcast, SF Said explained how these scenes came from a desire to create a ‘universal mythology’ for his story akin to Star Wars or Watership Down.
“I liked the idea of [Varjak] going into the mythic and the coming out with knowledge that you could apply in reality, a space where some sort of truth might be accessed that might be the most valuable knowledge of all.”
“Training scenes are something I’ve always loved. I wanted to have a lot of detail around the training, that it would be very specific. If you’re hunting, if you’re doing this strange shadow walking where you can turn invisible, how would that work?”
“I think it’s really interesting to children because a lot of their lives revolve around training – in structured and unstructured ways. I think the idea of a character who has to learn a body of knowledge to survive really does resonate.”
The original hardback editions further delineate between the dreaming and the gritty London street scenes through their subtle use of colour. Orange in Varjak Paw and blue for the Outlaw.
Although the second book came out in 2005, SF says he isn’t finished with the adventures of the Mesopotamian Blue. A third title is planned, featuring Varjak as a very old cat trying to pass the secrets of the Way on to a new generation of kittens. You’ll have to be patient though.
“If you’re going to write a book about an old character, you should be old yourself. I’m making notes and I’ve got plans but it probably won’t be anytime soon.”