Greedy Cat is back!

Issue: Volume 98, Number 10

Posted: 13 June 2019
Reference #: 1H9v6M

New Zealand’s most beloved feline anti-hero returns in a new series of books, which will be in schools in June.

Joy Cowley and Robyn Belton were thrilled when the Ministry of Education asked them to create five new Greedy Cat adventures so that a Greedy Cat book would be at every level of the Ready to Read colour wheel.

Author Joy Cowley and illustrator Robyn Belton have enjoyed nearly 40 years of collaboration on the Greedy Cat books, with countless messages and ideas bouncing between them about ‘His Royal Wickedness’ (HRW).

It all began in 1979 when the then Department of Education invited children’s writers and illustrators such as Joy, Robyn, Margaret Mahy, Mona Williams and experts from across the education sector to a week-long hui on the Kāpiti Coast to hear speakers with a view to creating a new series of Ready to Read stories that were more relevant to New Zealand children.

“It was the beginning of my career and I had never met any of these people,” says Robyn. “We all went to work after the day’s lectures. My room was next to Joy’s and I heard a knock on the door one night. She had written a story about a very fat cat and asked me to whizz up some drawings for it,” she says.

Joy remembers: “We were in a hothouse atmosphere. I think Robyn may have had a cat. She drew a grey cat but I thought grey is dull, and black is like a hole in the paper, and we can’t use white, and what we were left with was orange.

“We talked about a ginger cat being related to food – oranges, ginger, marmalade. We started talking about this cat and we sat up into the early hours of the morning putting this cat together. It was such a lovely time,” she says.

No such thing as a bad reader

Labelled as a bad reader when she was at school, and with a son, Edward, who had difficulty learning to read, Joy had a lot of empathy for children who struggled. She began to write stories for Edward’s class using a word list provided by the teacher.

“In my childhood, failure earned the punctuation of a ruler around the legs. That reinforced fear and the idea that I was a bad reader – there were three of us in the class. I always tell children that there’s no such thing as a bad reader, it’s the tricky words,” says Joy.

Playing with words

With more than 1,100 early reading books under her belt, Joy still takes as much care engineering the words as she does in her hobby of woodturning.

“If someone says they want something at level four or five, I know exactly what that level is and where the child is in his or her reading. There’s quite a bit of engineering; I go over and over. I love doing that – the editing is fun and very satisfying.”

When writing for beginner readers, Joy tries to use decodable words – words that sound the way they are spelt. Children don’t generally have trouble reading interesting words that have sound interest and that they can relate to, but other words can cause trouble.

“For example,” she says, “the subjunctives ‘would, could and should’ are words that are not interesting and they find difficulty with that. I might make it into a little dance, a rhythm… play with the words. It’s about sound, so they absorb the sound and associate the sound with the word.”

Writing for older readers allows more freedom but still requires being aware of syntax, sentence structure, a variety of punctuation and different sentence structures, she says, and it is essential for children to read for meaning. 

“You can’t bake bread in a cold oven and you can’t introduce complex language, sound it out and expect them to find meaning in it. They might be able to articulate the word, with a little help, but that doesn’t mean they have got the meaning of it.

“In the early levels, the illustrations must match the text exactly. For example, if there’s a cat and a dog in the story, they have to be illustrated in that order, and you can’t put another character in because the children will look up to see where the other character is.

Rich collaboration

The collaboration with Joy, says Robyn, has been long and richly rewarding.

“Every so often Joy would be asked to write a new story and she would always send it through to me, which was such a delight.

“My whole task is to elaborate on the script beyond what the words say to build around the words, add richness and humour, create an atmosphere and suggest a feeling. It feels like a big responsibility and I don’t want to short-change the children but to enhance their love of the story,” she says.

Joy says that Robyn made her realise that an illustrator is a co-author because she just expands the story and makes it come alive.

“Robyn was so aware of what was needed for Ready to Read,” she says. “I didn’t have to tell her anything. It was organic and grew and she put these delicious little extras in. I like the way she uses fridge magnets to make secret messages. She plays little tricks with her illustrations, which children just love.”

Robyn says that the illustrations bring the story to life and provide an immediate entry point to the story.

“They entice the child in and give them a feeling of what the story is about so they don’t need words for a start. A picture is an enlargement of the text so the child can understand the words better. The pictures also help a child relax. Joy says that no child can feel anxious when they are laughing.”

Inspirational beginnings

And where do the ideas come from? A lifelong cat owner, Joy has had plenty of inspiration over the years.

“When we lived in the (Marlborough) Sounds, we ended up with 13 cats; they were all homeless and we just looked after them and they all made themselves very much at home. We had this one cat, called Dick – he was black and white but the size of Greedy Cat – and he was on the table doing a Greedy Cat trick, eating the butter. I came in and clapped my hands and he shot off the table, through the cat door and he was so fat he took the cat door with him. He was standing in the backyard wearing this frame around his tummy, like some kind of hula skirt. That inspired Greedy Cat’s Door.”

Inspiration was close to home for Robyn as well.

“While I was working on the first drawings for Greedy Cat, I felt something was needed to form a tangible link with the five-year-old children who would be reading it, so I decided to put a new character in the story. My preschooler Katie was sitting at my feet while I was working.

“Joy was thrilled with a funny Katie running through the sub-plot with Mum not noticing what  Greedy Cat was up to – conspiratorial fun! And by the time the next book came along, Greedy Cat is Hungry, Joy wrote Katie’s name into the story!”

As for Greedy Cat’s wicked ways, Robyn says that recent visits to schools in Dunedin introducing the new series made her realise that HRW mustn’t change.

“He needs to stay as bad as he has been – and the more wicked he is, the better! He will always remain a rather out-of-control cat – he can’t help himself,” she says.

Joy gave up visiting schools when she was 75 because the demand was too great, but she still enjoys encounters with children and adults who love her books. 

“There’s a  pleasure in feeling Greedy Cat has helped people become readers,” she says.

Both Joy and Robyn delighted in telling the writer of this article Greedy Cat stories, with Joy reciting a story to illustrate how she uses rhythm.

“I just love it that Greedy Cat is so much part of the children’s lives,” says Robyn, “– that he no longer belongs to Joy Cowley, or to me, but he has become theirs!” 

Greedy Cat feedback

The new series of Greedy Cat books for Green to Gold levels has been produced by Lift Education for the Ministry of Education. The books were trialled in schools before publication and this is what two teachers said:

Greedy Cat and the Visitor: “The dog in the bag was hilarious and Greedy Cat’s face is priceless. The students inferred how he was feeling and had fun predicting what he might do about the situation. Lovely to see the students bouncing ideas off each other and starting to discuss the plot.”

Greedy Cat and the Chooks: “The students relished the descriptive language. One child said that she liked how Joy Cowley put ‘wow’ words in it, and another said she just loved the word ‘furious’.” 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:26 am, 13 June 2019

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