Feral attraction

'Warriors is always described as a feral cat fantasy and indeed it is, but I personally don't like cats and I can't stand fantasy," says Victoria Holmes, the mind behind one of the most popular middle-grade series for children 9 and older. "When I was asked to write this fantasy, it was a little like being asked to walk barefoot over broken glass."

This is one of several paradoxes that gives the series power. Children praise the books of Erin Hunter, but in truth there is no Erin Hunter. Instead, three British authors have worked together on the more than two dozen books. Originally, HarperCollins asked author-editor Holmes to write a cat novel, "but halfway through one book, it turned into three and then those turned into six," she said.

Holmes sought help from Kate Cary and Cherith Baldry, both of whom write in a style similar to her own and are "very much cat people." Holmes plots the books, and Cary and Baldry write them, adding details filled with cat behavior and movement. "We complement each other and are a very united front," Holmes says.

Holmes will be in Raleigh to speak about the 15th Warrior book, the third in the Power of Three series, "Outcast" (HarperCollins, $16.99; ages 9 and older). The three heroes are sibling cats, grandkittens of Firestar, the most famous warrior cat of all the clans. Hollypaw is a feisty female and brilliant hunter, called "my little thinker" by her father, Brambleclaw. Holmes thinks of Hollypaw as "the politician of the group." Hollypaw's brothers are Lionpaw, a male with innate fighting skills, and Jaypaw, a blind healer cat with curious visions. Holmes sees Jaypaw as "the plotter" and Lionpaw, "the action hero."

In "Outcast," all three journey to rugged mountains where the Tribe of Rushing Water has been attacked by a band of bullying cats. All three heroes have a vision of what it means to travel to the mountains, but Jaypaw alone knows that the three are part of a prophecy of power.

So many middle-grade novels divide along gender lines, but Warriors pleases both sexes. Holmes realizes that American children, especially girls, love cats, but boys make up 40 percent of attendance at book events. For them, "there's gore and violence." Holmes is "a complete pacifist," but her books "confront hatred and jealousy and the necessity of blood to settle an argument."

Though she writes for young adults, Holmes doesn't "dumb down" or hide from issues. "It feels odd to be categorized as writing for young people because I put whatever I want in my books. The things that matter to me are death, religion, gangs, spirituality, losing a parent, peer pressure, love, respect, having people die. I never stop to wonder if children are going to keep up. I pride myself on never having happy endings because I think that never happens in life. We have to take the raw materials we're given and run with them the best we can."

Her characters ask children to look deeper. Take for example, Jaypaw's blindness: "I wanted a cat that would appear to be disadvantaged and yet could end up being more than all the cats put together," Holmes says. "Like all of the cats, he's neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Too often you can't speak ill of someone who has something wrong with them. But we're condescending and discarding someone socially if we say he's blind, so he must be a saint. Jaypaw is not a saint; he can be horrid and arrogant. But he's got a lot to prove, and I really want to get inside his head."

Holmes takes her cat heroes into emotional places, giving them strong feelings. She does the same for children.

"I'm very mindful of the influence I have over young minds, and I take my moral duties completely seriously. In Warriors when everything is shades of gray, I encourage young readers to have confidence in their judgment. We have to have faith that we can do the right thing, even if it's not the easiest option. But if I'm going to explore issues like bereavement and spirituality, then I walk every step of the way holding my reader's hand. I won't expose them to anything that will leave them in a moral quandary. The stories may not have happy endings, but I never want them to question what would be the right action."

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